It's a small world after all

When people say that the world is getting smaller, it's not just a euphemism; in some cases, they really do mean it literally. Take the CPU, for example.
Written by Bill O'Brien, Contributor
When people say that the world is getting smaller, it's not just a euphemism; in some cases, they really do mean it literally.

Take the CPU, for example. Intel's Mobile Pentium III-M processors are hardly the next generation in performance but they certainly mark the state of the art for blade servers and portables. The 0.13 micron-sized CPU can operate between 1.4 and 0.95 volts, depending on the flavor of the processor in question. And we're moving toward 0.10 micron (and smaller) technology that may cling more closely to the lower end of that voltage range.

Consider the average IDE hard drive. For all the advances that have been made in spindle speed, platter density, head technology and interface design, the electronics behind it essentially still require 5 volts (the mechanical bits can require more). As Intel continues to downsize its product line and electronic power requirements decrease, the idea of having enough extra voltage around to fry a system is about as welcome as a barbeque in a gasoline station. Not to mention that the size of the connection required to support 5 volts could easily be larger than the actual chip area.

We've already stuffed 2.5-inch drives into portables, taking care of accommodating the reduction in form factor for now. The (relatively) high-voltage IDE side is a work in progress. In fact, after an hour-long talk session with Lorne Wilson, vice president, channel sales and marketing, and Chuck Nielsen, chief technologist of the hard disk group, both at California-based Fujitsu Computer Products of America (FCPA), it emerged that the final product is imminent--and it will take the shape of 2.5-inch serial ATA drives.

"First-generation serial ATA will start at 150 Mbytes per second," says Wilson, and he notes that you can fit four 2.5-inch drives in the same physical space as one 3.5-inch drive. Size certainly does matter--and, as if to prove it, FCPA withdrew from the 3.5-inch desktop market during the third quarter of 2001 to concentrate on the mobile and enterprise segments. (Worldwide, FCPA is rated the second largest manufacturer for the enterprise segment, ahead of IBM.) Nielsen adds that the 6-pin point-to-point interface--one drive and one interface, not the two drives that parallel IDE allows or the 15 permitted by SCSI--will operate at 500 millivolts peak-to-peak.

All of that sounds reasonable. However, for those of us who were born the day before yesterday, 8 bits delivered simultaneously will always be faster than 1 bit delivered 8 times. While the proposed initial 150Mbyte per second serial ATA interface is technically faster than the IDE ATA/133 standard on the horizon, 320Mbytes per second for SCSI makes serial ATA pale in comparison. Or does it? Says Nielsen, "[SCSI] speed is divided by the number of active devices on the cable. As well, there are always additional issues when mounting multiple devices on a single cable. Because serial ATA is point to point, the potential is always for 150Mbytes per second."

Small size, low voltage, adequate capacity (110GB is expected within the next month or so), and speed--all are a winning combination. What's missing so far is any mention of cost. Emerging technologies are always expensive at first. According to FCPA's Wilson, serial ATA will never approach the price of current-day SCSI systems. By next year, he claims, unit costs should be equivalent to current parallel ATA drives, and serial ATA should begin to dip somewhat afterwards.

You're probably not going to have the option of procrastinating the way you do with operating system upgrades. (First-generation serial ATA drives will be transparent to the operating system, so procrastination won't even be a viable excuse.) One day in the late '80s we went to sleep with 5.25-inch MFM drives and woke the next morning to a 3.5-inch RLL IDE world. Get your ducats in a row now. It's serial ATA next.

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