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HARDWARE

State-Of-The-Art Standards – SATA Express (Part 1)

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5/15/2014 4:44:39 PM

Whenever components available at retail begin to approach the theoretical bandwidth limits defined by the protocols they use, you can bet a new standard or a faster revision of the current one is on the verge of ratification by the appropriate industry associations. That’s exactly the case with SATA.

SATA is set for its next technological leap forward.

SATA is set for its next technological leap forward.

Today’s protocol revision, SATA III (or SATA 3.x or SATA 6Gbps), has a real-world maximum data rate of around 600MBps. As our longtime readers have surely noticed, we’ve tested numerous SSDs that achieve nearly those speeds in reads, with write speeds not too far behind.

Even though SATA’s pipeline for SSDs is just a few dozen megabytes per second away from becoming a bottleneck, the industry organization behind the standard has already said that it doesn’t plan to aggressively push for a 12Gbps SATA 4.0 revision (based on the existing enterprise-grade Serial Attached SCSI interface) anytime in the foreseeable future. According to the SATA-IO (Serial ATA International Organization), a 12Gbps SATA standard would require controllers that are an order of magnitude more complex with significantly larger ICs, which would gobble up valuable motherboard real estate and cost more to develop and manufacturer. Existing cables wouldn’t be sufficient to handle the higher bandwidth, either, adding another cost premium to SATA 4.0’s bottom line. All of the above would also preclude it from quick adoption by AMD and Intel, the twin gatekeepers of PC chipsets, deeming technologies worthy of inclusion or dooming them to perpetual exclusion.

 It’s showing sixteen SATA 3 Gbps and six SATA 6 Gbps for a start, as well as no significant power delivery and an obscene form factor.

It’s showing sixteen SATA 3 Gbps and six SATA 6 Gbps for a start,
as well as no significant power delivery and an obscene form factor.

Although the next stage in SATA’s evolution is decidedly more incremental, SATA Express is almost here. Read on to learn what makes the next SATA revision worth getting excited about.

SATA’s Transition

In 2003, the Serial ATA Workgroup (which would later become SATA-IO) initially proposed the Parallel ATA replacement, discarding the 80-pin interface plagued by crosstalk (remember those ribbon cables?) in favor of a serial interface that consisted of two pairs of conductors capable of passing data between two nodes, one bit at a time. The SATA interface was able to blow past the PATA interface largely thanks to its ability to run with a significantly faster clock. Narrower cables, smaller connectors, and a dramatic increase in the number of devices you could connect to the chipset were other factors that helped endear SATA to computing enthusiasts.

Jumping ahead to 2009, SATA 3.0 is finalized, and SSDs are still a fairly new innovation in personal computers. A mere two years later, SandForce releases its SF-2200 family of controllers for consumer SSDs. The SF-2200 controllers pushed flash-based storage performance to up to around 80% of the standard’s maximum data rate.

LSI Announces SandForce SF-2200 TCG Opal Compliance

LSI Announces SandForce SF-2200 TCG Opal Compliance

Once hardware outpaces a standard, even if that hardware is limited to the cutting edge of the market, it’s already too late. Innovation halts, sales slump, and consumers and manufacturers begin searching for something else; the standard is dead in the water. Although SSDs still make up a small portion of the overall storage market, according to IHS iSuppli, there were 57 million SSD shipments in 2013, and by 2017, that number is expected to balloon to 190 million units. With SATA 4.0 clearly off the table, there needs to be a performance incentive to help move that number of units, and you might be surprised to learn that another standard, PCI Express, is very likely to be behind the wheel for this next phase of SATA’s evolution.

 

 

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