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1/24/2007
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Eric Hall
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Booming SATA Market Looks To Overtake Storage Arena

The high-performance storage interface, which now accounts for a majority of hard drives sold, is opening up new opportunites, as well as challenges.

Sometime in the third quarter of 2006, Serial ATA became the dominant storage interface, accounting for more than half of all drives sold in that time period, and for an overwhelming majority of total disk storage in terms of raw gigabytes. Moreover, SATA has become the primary storage interface for most new systems, with Parallel ATA, or IDE, drives and interfaces being relegated to "legacy" and non-PC uses (such as media systems and gaming consoles), while SCSI's dominance over enterprise servers and storage systems is also being challenged like never before.

On the surface, this may appear to be nothing more than the natural progression of a planned industry evolution, but it's a fairly impressive accomplishment given the relative newness of SATA technology. According to Knut Grimsrud, president of the Serial ATA International Organization responsible for managing the SATA standard, the 1.0 specification was published in August of 2001, while the 1.0a update came out in January of 2004. That means we've gone from first specification to clarification to primary interface within a mere five years.

By comparison, USB has been around for about 12 years now, but most PCs are still sold with legacy connectors for PS/2 devices, serial and parallel devices, joysticks, floppy drives and more, almost all of which were expected to have been made obsolete by now, and there are still large chunks of the add-on market that continue to give preference to the legacy interfaces. From that perspective, SATA's rapid and broad adoption rate is almost spectacular. It may even be unprecedented -- whereas technologies like Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) and PCMCIA were also adopted very quickly, they were typically constrained to specific platforms, and did not see universal adoption across all sectors. (There were plenty of servers that had neither, for example.) Conversely, SATA is meeting with rapid success just about everywhere.

Fun With Numbers

The most obvious example of this can be found in the desktop PC arena, where SATA is a natural replacement for older PATA drives and interfaces. A couple of years ago, most of the motherboards in this class only had a couple of SATA connectors, with just a few of them having four or more. With the introduction of new CPUs from Intel and AMD, however, the industry has seen a wholesale refresh of the product lines, and almost all of the new PC motherboards have a minimum of four SATA connectors (some having as many as eight or more), and many of these boards now only have one PATA interface (and some don't have any PATA connectors at all).

All told, 66.7 percent of the hard drives that were sold in Q3 2006 in this space were SATA, according to John Rydning, research manager for hard disk drives and components at IDC. While legacy PATA drives still account for a huge chunk of sales (constituting the bulk of the remaining 33 percent), the simple fact is that SATA is already outselling PATA by a 2-to-1 margin in the desktop sector, and that's within just a few short years of general availability.

Industry insiders said they expect laptops to switch to SATA even faster than desktops, since replacement cycles within that sector are usually more compressed, and because the smaller number of laptop vendors and models make every change more noticeable. Sure enough, many of the new laptop models released for the new Intel and AMD processors are also now using SATA, and according to Rydning, 44 percent of the 2.5" laptop drives sold in Q3 were SATA. That figure may seem small compared to the desktop share, but consider that SATA only accounted for 18 percent of the laptop drives sold in Q1, and you can see how quickly the transition is taking place.

SATA is also encroaching into multi-user storage, with many of the entry-level and mid-tier servers and external storage systems taking advantage of its relatively low cost-per-gigabyte entrance fee and relatively high performance characteristics. For example, many of the server-class systems that have been released over the last couple of years have adopted SATA as the primary interface for local storage (just as with the desktop sector), but those interfaces are also frequently used for less-demanding applications such as serving up static content. Meanwhile, scores of new vendors have entered the storage area network (SAN) and network attached storage (NAS) markets over the last couple of years, and many (if not most) of them are selling cabinets based on SATA storage designs.

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