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SATA drives take aim at SCSI

Serial ATA drives are threatening the very being of SCSI drives. Two companies are at the forefront of developing these enterprise class drives. Check in with them here.

For a few years now, ATA drives -- long confined purely to the desktop market -- have been showing more and more strength in a variety of less-than-mission-critical enterprise applications. Now, with a new serial version of the long-popular ATA protocol (SATA) moving into availability some drive makers are working to sharpen their competitive edge so they can make further inroads relative to SCSI.

Two of the most obvious differentiators, beside protocol, that have separated ATA/SATA drives from their SCSI competitors are speed and reliability. ATA and SATA drives usually operate at speeds well below 10,000 rpm -- the usual entry point speed for SCSI. Similarly, MTBF for ATA/SATA desktop drives has usually been reckoned in the range of a few hundred thousand hours while SCSI drives generally are rated at well over a million hours.

At least two drive makers seem intent on rewriting the rules. Maxtor, is offering enhanced-reliability 5400 RPM and 7200 RPM ATA good for more than a million hours of operations. The drives are being positioned by the company as ideal for so-called near-line storage applications, where access speed is less crucial and usage is less intense than in many traditional SCSI applications.

"The Serial ATA market demand signals we're seeing are promising," says Robert Wise, director of Maxtor's Desktop Product Group. Maxtor is shipping Serial ATA drives in capacities ranging from 80 gigabytes (GB) to 250 GB, including the MaXLine model. He says early market adopters continue to develop with, ask for, and qualify Maxtor's Serial ATA drives. "We see some initial activity in 2003, with 2004 as possibly the watershed year for Serial ATA equipped products entering the IT system solution marketplaces," he adds.

Meanwhile, Western Digital, which has not been playing in the enterprise space recently, is now offering SATA drives with rotational speeds in excess of 10,000 rpm -- which gives them accessibility characteristics comparable to SCSI.

Steve Wilkins, director of product marketing for enterprise products at Western Digital says his company's push into the enterprise (an area it used to participate in with SCSI products) stems in part from the fact that advanced performance potential of the SATA protocol is actually not that critical to the desktop market at the moment, making the potential benefits of selling into the enterprise all the more tantalizing. There, SATA characteristics like hot-swapability already promise to give it more attention than its predecessor, ATA, he notes.

Leveraging its volume manufacturing capability, Wilkins says adding features like higher spindle speed has been comparatively easy. Wilkins jokes about getting "hate mail" from SCSI drive manufacturers because, he says, "they are making huge money at end users' expense."

Furthermore, Wilkins vows that Western Digital will be able to retain its low-cost edge in enterprise-grade SATA drives "because we don't have to have an army of SCSI engineers on staff."

While analysts disagree about many specifics regarding SATA's inroads into the enterprise, John Monroe, vice president at Gartner is probably typical. He believes SATA will not be for everyone but, eyeing a future of tighter IT budgets, he thinks the economics of SATA will be compelling. And that means Western Digital and Maxtor probably won't long be alone in offering upgraded SATA products.

For more information:

Featured tip: Serial ATA: Here, now

Expert advice: Killer serial: is ATA ready for the enterprise?

Advice: Should ATA disks become a standard for online data?



  • Alan Earls often writes about things NAS and SAN the "SAN/NAS Update: Trends" column. View the latest
  • About the author: Alan Earls is a freelance writer in Franklin, MA.</

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