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New Specs Give Desktop Storage A Shot In The Arm

Two long-awaited new technology standards promise to reshape the small-business storage market. But how long will it take for them to deliver the goods?
Two long-awaited new technology standards promise to reshape the small-business storage market. But how long will it take for them to deliver the goods?Serial ATA (SATA) and USB are probably the two most ubiquitous methods for connecting desktop storage devices. Now, long-awaited upgrades to both standards are ready to make an impact on the small-business IT market:
  • USB 3.0, also known as SuperSpeed USB, has been in development since 2007. It will, in theory, deliver data-transfer speeds up to 4.8 Gbps -- about 10 times faster than the limit for existing USB 2.0 devices. In practice, both standards offer real-world speeds that are about half of their theoretical limits, although this still means that USB 3.0 will enable much faster data transfers from external hard disks.
  • SATA 6Gbps also represents a third-generation revision to the original SATA standard. Although it offers a number of performance and reliability improvements, the most obvious change is its higher data transfer capacity; as the name implies, SATA 6Gbps offers twice the bandwidth of existing SATA 3Gbps devices and four times the bandwidth of first-generation SATA devices.
Both standards, by the way, will be fully backward-compatible with devices using previous versions.

Of course, real-world performance is often a far cry from the attention-getting numbers that these standards' marketing bodies like to tout. So how will these standards actually benefit small businesses?

In the short run, it is likely that USB 3.0 will have the biggest bandwidth impact. Today's USB 2.0 controllers already have their hands full transferring data from a single external SATA drive. When users connect multiple drives or devices such as digital cameras to a single USB 2.0 hub, bandwidth-related performance bottlenecks are even more likely. As a result, USB 3.0 controllers and hubs will make it much easier to use high-speed external storage devices and peripherals, especially when working with large files.

One question surrounding USB 3.0 is whether it will retain one of its biggest current advantages: price. Compared to the competing IEEE 1394 (aka FireWire) spec, for example, USB cables and peripheral devices tend to offer lower performance at a significantly lower price.

SATA 6Gbps is a different story. The current SATA standard offers more than enough bandwidth for even the fastest mechanical hard disks, which means that most users won't notice any improvements -- for the time being.

That will certainly change, however, as solid-state disk (SSD) storage gets cheaper. Today, SSDs are still used mostly in high-performance desktop PCs, workstations, and enterprise-class data storage systems where the performance benefits outweigh the higher cost per GB. Within a few years, however, SSDs are likely to enter the desktop storage mainstream.

When that happens, SATA 6Gbps will prove its worth. One of the biggest benefits of SSD technology is its ability to transfer data at extremely high rates. Today's SSDs can already saturate a SATA 3Gbps connection, making the new standard a necessity at a time when better, cheaper, and even faster SSDs are hitting the market.

Both standards are just beginning to appear in real-world products, such as high-end motherboards and hard disks popular with system builders and PC gamers. By next year, however, you can count on seeing both USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbps in a wide range of PCs and peripheral devices -- and for many desktop PC users, their timing couldn't be more perfect.

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