Industry debates the role of SATA drives

Users are clamoring for lower cost storage, but they and vendors aren't quite ready to put cheaper, less reliable SATA technology in enterprise arrays.

While vendors are launching new drives and refitting high-end storage arrays to accommodate the low-cost Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (SATA) technology, many in the industry doubt that SATA will suffice in an enterprise data center.

Seagate Technology flooded the industry with new disk drives this week for everything from MP3 players to digital video recorders to notebook computers and PCs. But Seagate is hedging its bets in the data center with the launch of a 400 GB SATA drive and a Fibre Attached Technology Adapted (FATA) drive that packs up to one-half terabyte of capacity.

Earlier this week, Hitachi Data Systems (HDS), a subsidiary of Hitachi Ltd., entered the fray by beefing up its Thunder 9500V storage systems to support both Fibre Channel and low-cost SATA drives in the same array. However, making SATA suitable for the high-end Thunder was like shoving a square peg into a round hole for HDS.

"All ATA is designed to be low cost, which means cheaper components and a less rigid system, which results in vibrations that are more likely to make heads misread and bearings wear down," said Hu Yoshida, chief technology officer at HDS. "Because of their flimsier enclosures, these drives are not designed to get a lot of pounding before you get a misalignment. … We were very concerned about putting this technology into an enterprise environment," he said.

When it comes to its high-end Enterprise Virtual Arrays, Hewlett-Packard Co. is bypassing the SATA revolution. HP, in Palo Alto, Calif., will reportedly offer users a 250 GB FATA drive from Seagate. "Our customers told us they were willing to sacrifice performance, but they weren't willing to sacrifice availability," said Kyle Fitze, director of marketing for HP's online storage division. HP is using SATA technology in its MSA1500 controller and MSA20 SATA JBOD.

3Pardata Inc. and Xiotech are also in the FATA camp. "When it hits the market in volume next year, we will use FATA drives," said David Scott, CEO of 3Pardata Inc. Referring to Serial ATA, he said, "Why settle for something that's less reliable?"

The success of SATA over Fibre Channel in the enterprise remains to be seen. But many are convinced that the technology doesn't belong in an environment with high availability requirements. In fact, 45% of users surveyed by SearchStorage.com believe SATA will slide into a role as secondary or backup storage for large enterprises, while 19% said SATA will serve as primary storage for small and medium-sized companies.

The FATA drive is based on the same platform as ATA and Serial ATA drives, but features a dual-ported 2 Gb/s Fibre Channel interface. Scott said the difference in price between SATA and FATA drives is "tens of percents."

Bob Venable, manager of enterprise systems for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee, is one user who doesn't believe in lower cost disk technology on the whole. "We're not sure we want to give up reliability. At the volume we're buying disk, the price of storage is coming way down anyway," he said. Venable said cheaper disk is less capable hardware and not as redundant as more reliable Fibre Channel technology.

For more information:

Disk cost busters -- How to leverage low-cost disk solutions

Serial ATA: Here, now

Dig deeper on Disk drives

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