Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Why Serial ATA will ultimately fail

Posted in computers by commorancy on July 17, 2009

Serial ATA is the replacement for Parallel ATA hard drives in computers.   Serial ATA offers faster speeds, yes, but is still immensely inconvenient in the Windows world (and probably with Linux and Mac as well).

Problematic design / brittle plastic

First, the thing you’ll notice different between a PATA drive and SATA drive is the connectors.  Gone are the bigger multipin data connector and the 4 pin power connector.  Instead, now we have a multipin power and multipin data connector that has a slim/thin form factor.  At first glance, you might think this is cool looking replacement connector.  We’ll I’m here to tell you it’s not.  The plastic used to hold the flat pins in place is weak and brittle.  If you’re not absolutely light touch careful with how the drive fits in place, you’re likely to break one or both of the connectors off.  Once that happens, the drive is toast.

In the 18 years I’ve been a systems administrator, I’ve changed many a hard drive and never once broken an IDE’s data connector.  I’ve torn a few cables and I’ve bent a few pins, but this is nothing that can’t be corrected easily leaving the drive fully functional.  With the brittle plastic SATA connectors on the drive itself, it’s extremely easy to break them off.   For this poor design choice alone, this is one reason why SATA manufacturers must eventually redesign this connector or the drive acceptance will fail.

Out with the old, in with the new

Hard drive manufacturers and motherboard manufacturers have been steadily pushing EIDE (IDE) out the door in replacement for SATA drives.  That’s great if everyone was on board at the same time.  Unfortunately, Microsoft still isn’t on board with this change over.  There are still limited native SATA drivers even in Windows Server 2008 (which is an offshoot of Vista).  This means, you must still load drivers for certain popular SATA controllers.  For example, one of the most common controllers used on motherboards is the SI3114 (Silicon Image) controller.  Yet, you still must load drivers to get Windows to recognize a drive connected to it before Windows will install.  If you forgot the driver or don’t realize you need it, you’ll easily spend 30 minutes chasing it down from your controller or motherboard manufacturer.

I realize the hard drive and motherboard manufacturers are trying to affect change, but you can’t do it when Microsoft still isn’t on board.  I guess these businesses haven’t really figured this out yet.

Road to failure

I don’t mean hard drive failure either.  I mean failure of the standard to be accepted in the long term.  For poor design choices and the lack of giving Microsoft time to embed the most common SATA drivers into Windows installation media, SATA drives are likely to eventually fail to be the defacto data storage device of choice.  Connectors on the back of drives need to be rugged (or at least more rugged than the brittle plastic they are using).  The connectors could have been both bigger and more thoughtfully designed than what is on the back of SATA drives.  For hot plugable configs, these connectors seem to work reasonably well, but they are still not perfect (as you have to play with alignment to ensure proper connectivity, hoping you don’t break parts off).  The SCA connector was a much better standard as far as hot plug standards go:  one single connector, big enough to be functional, easy to hotplug and rugged enough to keep from breaking parts off.

SATA drive manufacturers need to work on a design spec for better more rugged connectors on the back of SATA drives.  Motherboard manufacturers need to ensure their SATA controller has a built-in driver in Windows installation packages so no specialty setups are necessary.   Without these two steps, SATA drives will eventually fail to gain the acceptance and the momentum to keep these products going.  Manufacturers seem to think that there is no other choice for data storage in the computer.  When you think of hard drives, ATA drives are the first that come to mind.  But, we are fast approaching solid state technologies.   These solid state storage technologies don’t need the hoggy space of a hard drive chassis, the spinning noise and the eventual failure.  With solid state drives, instead of 1U machines, we may even begin seeing 1/2U machines or less.

Fix it or fail

Hard drive manufacturers need to rethink SATA.  They need to design both a better connector and faster data rates.  3Gbps speeds is reasonably fast, but we need to be about 10Gbps before vast improvements in transfer rates are actually noticed at a storage level.

Without the necessary support, which by now we should have had in the SATA world, it doesn’t make sense for HD manufacturers to push IDE out the door.  There are still far too many times where IDE devices are necessary to get a system to a workable state.  Motherboard manufacturers need to be doubly careful.  SATA-only motherboards lead to challenges during installation of Windows due to lack of drivers.  These installation challenges can lead to frustration and eventually a return of the motherboard to the store.

For all of these reasons, the SATA specification and design needs to be rethought.  The brittle plastic connectors are no where near rugged enough and need to be made much more sturdy.   The lack of driver support makes installation and repairs extremely frustrating.  Chasing down SATA drivers to place on floppy disks can be a challenge even for the most knowledgeable.

For now, this is the state of SATA.  It was a promising standard, but for now it’s become a problem because the hard drive industry is trying to push for change far too rapidly without adequately testing the design of the drive.  For anyone reading who may work with SATA designs or manufacturing, please feel free to take this to your bosses for review.

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