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Serial ATA hard drives are coming, but when and where will they fit in?

Kevin Komiega

The impending arrival of serial ATA hard drive technology holds the promise of speedier transfer rates, a more efficient interface and lower cost.

So what's the hold up?

The time table for the technology has been delayed - serial ATA drives were due to hit the streets en masse by now - and while the hard drive vendors are ready to go, they have to wait for technology on the server side of things to catch up.

"The forecast for serial ATA has slipped two times," said John Monroe, chief analyst for rigid drives at the analyst firm Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn.

Full fledged serial ATA-based systems were originally slated to enter the market this year, but Monroe said there's interface standard work to do on the system side.

Monroe said the hard drive vendors are set to go, but host bus adapters and chipsets are not up to speed.

Drive makers are subject to what Monroe calls the "Intel cascade effect," meaning until Intel Corp., brings new chipsets to the market the drive vendors are forced to sit on their hands and wait. But, he said, Intel can only develop so many things at once.

Monroe said the drive makers want to force a standardization on serial ATA as soon as possible because it is more cost effective to manufacture one drive type and the one thing serial ATA will do is break ranks with past drive technology.

"One of the things [the industry has] done well is provide enhancements to drives

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while maintaining backward compatibility to a standard," Monroe said. "One of the things that serial ATA will do is abandon backward compatibility with past drive technology."

And while this technology jump might initially cause a delay in market acceptance, Monroe said serial ATA will appear in low-end servers this year, with the adoption of serial ATA drives into systems as a new standard in 2004.

The use of a phone jack-style connection versus the ribbon connector used by current ATA-100 drive technology will prove a space-saver and the throughput of serial ATA drives will range from 150-180M-Bits/sec.

John Paulsen, a spokesperson for drive maker Seagate Technology Corp., Scotts Valley, Calif., and a member of the Serial ATA Working Group developing the specification, said the serial ATA committee is planning for product in the middle of this year.

"Seagate expects our products to be ready to ship before actual systems using serial ATA boards ship," he said.

According to Seagate, its important to look at the time since the final specification was announced in August of 2001. In that respect, said Paulsen, serial ATA is "moving very fast."

"We should see product in mid 2002 - less than a year later," he said. "That's fast compared with advancing standards historically."

Fujitsu is also a major serial ATA drive maker. They could not be reached for comment.

The faster overall throughput of the drives will enable them to keep up with future computing power found in low end servers, desktop and notebook computers, network-attached storage (NAS) systems and possibly storage area networks (SANs).

Some SAN vendors like Eden Prairie. Minn.-based XIOtech Corp., are reserving judgment on whether to adopt serial ATA hard drives into their product line.

The company said it's not a matter of whether or not serial ATA drives are going to be plugged into its SANs, it's a question of whether the drives can extend the functionality of the storage system.

"The important thing for us is [will it benefit] our customers?" said Dan McCormick, vice president of marketing for XIOtech. "There's potential for serial ATA drives to change what [the users] are doing with their backup."

McCormick sees one upside of the new drive technology in the opportunity for lower cost, online backup.

But, he said, it is too soon to tell when and if the drives will find their way into SANs.

Steve Duplessie, founder and senior analyst for the Enterprise Storage Group Inc., Milford, Mass., said serial ATA drives will eventually become a standard.

"We believe that it will become disruptive to standard Fibre Channel and SCSI drives," he said. "Serial ATA may become the standard the way SCSI drives did when [in the days of] proprietary big drive formats."

Ultimately it will come down to cost, and that's where serial ATA drives will win, Duplessie said.

Got news? E-mail Kevin Komiega, assistant news editor Let us know what you think about the story, e-mail Kevin Komiega, assistant news editor

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

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