PC disk drive technology heads to data centers

New serial technology would give Advanced Technology Attachment (ATA) drives a performance boost.

For companies seeking to store mission-critical data, disk arrays configured with SCSI-attached drives have typically been the only game in town. Lower-cost drives based on the Advanced Technology Attachment (ATA) standard, while plentiful in PCs, lacked the performance and reliability needed at the data center level.

In recent months, however, vendors such as EMC Corp. and Network Appliance Inc. have begun building ATA drives into storage devices. Now the advent of serial ATA technology is expected to boost data throughput rates from the 100MB/sec. that parallel ATA drives are capable of to 150MB/sec., and eventually to 600MB/sec.

Sunnyvale, Calif.-based 3Ware Corp. last week announced a serial ATA RAID controller that it said provides SCSI-like performance at ATA prices. And San Jose-based Fujitsu Computer Products of America said it plans to ship serial ATA drives by year's end.

ATA drives still run more slowly than their SCSI counterparts. But storage vendors can profitably sell disk arrays built around ATA drives at a per-megabyte price that's about half what it costs to buy a low-end array based on SCSI drives, said Bob Zimmerman, an analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. "There are some real price advantages," he said.

ATA technology won't push high-end SCSI arrays such as EMC's Symmetrix boxes out the doors of data centers, he added. But ATA drives should be good enough for use in disk-to-disk data backup applications, Zimmerman said.

Scott Studham, group leader of the molecular science computing facility at the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratories in Seattle, finished replacing a 20TB tape archiving system with servers that use parallel ATA drives last week. "It's disk speed at tape cost," he said. "I'm totally in love with this."

Studham uses 3Ware's RAID controller card to provide a level of redundancy for his ATA disk farm. The molecular science group's primary data storage is handled by a high-end disk array made by Compaq Computer Corp., which is now part of Hewlett-Packard Co. But Studham said he expects to replace that with serial ATA technology "in a couple years from now."

ATA (Advanced Technology Attachment) is an interface that connects a computer's system bus to disk storage devices. Drives built to the standard, which is also known as Integrated Drive Electronics (IDE), have mainly been used in PCs to date. Framingham, Mass.-based IDC estimates that 87% of all drives being shipped now use ATA.

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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