Serial ATA Chipping with Agere, Maxtor

With networking chip providers looking to amp the performance of hard disk drives (HDDs) at the request of the HDD manufacturers who need to compete, Agere Systems Tuesday said it just made sense to join forces with HDD maker Maxtor to co-create a Serial ATA (SATA) system-on-a-chip (SoC).

Often used in consumer electronics devices, SoC technology is the packaging of all the necessary electronic circuits and parts for a “system” — such as a handheld computer or MP3 player — on a single chip. Milpitas, Calif.-based Maxtor will use Allentown, Pa.-based Agere’s storage chip chops to devise the SoC for its future MaXLine and DiamondMax SATA hard drives to offer customers hardware with speedy 1.5 gigabit-per-second data throughput.

Used to connect a system BUS to an HDD, Serial ATA technology has been gaining considerable momentum in the last year as an alternative to traditional parallel ATA technology. Proponents of Serial ATA argue that it is faster and relatively inexpensive. For example, Agere says its SoC is being used to replace two-chip bridge solutions and represents a 50 percent increase in the throughput available in current ATA drives using parallel interfaces.

Industry analyst firm iSuppli said the number of HDDs deployed with integrated SATA interfaces will top 250 million units by 2005. Serial ATA provides OEMs, system builders and consumers with cables that are easy to route and install, as well as smaller cable connectors featuring improved silicon design and lower pin counts.

The SATA SoC is expected to allow Maxtor’s MaXLine SATA drives to offer improved performance for enterprise mid-line fixed content or near-line disk-to-disk back-up storage applications. The SoC will also boost performance for Maxtor’s DiamondMax family of hard drives, which are designed for PCs, game consoles, consumer electronics and other desktop applications.

Maxtor can use the speedy throughput in its new drives for its bid to compete with rivals Seagate, and Toshiba in the HDD space, where competition is fierce in a sector where the promise and threat of consolidation looms. According to research firm Gartner, the HDD industry is expected to fully consolidate over the next five years with more manufacturing shifting to China and the rest of Asia including Thailand to reduce costs and benefit from huge market potential.

HDD makers like to posit their products as lower cost storage alternatives to SCSI and Fibre Channel products, but there is little evidence to suggest that will help their cause given the success large storage vendors such as EMC, IBM, HP and Hitachi Data Systems have had.

Agere and Maxtor are currently working with other storage industry vendors on the technical specifications for SATA II, which would double the data throughput of SATA I to 3.0 Gbits/s.

In other HDD news, tech giant Toshiba Tuesday vowed to double production of its 1.8-inch hard disk drive and is considering entering the market for 1-inch drives, citing strong demand for the small drives from makers of such devices as handheld computers, portable notebooks, portable handheld GPS units and MP3 players. Toshiba estimates the market for 1.8-inch HDDs will rise to 70 million in 2010. In response, Toshiba is doubling its production volume to 600,000 units per month by March 2004.

Meanwhile, network drive maker Iomega introduced the Network Hard Drive for home and small office (SOHO) networks. An Ethernet- enabled external drive, the new drive provides up to 250 GB of low-cost storage for user to save data from multiple computers. It includes a built-in 10/100 Mbps (Fast Ethernet) port that lets it connect directly to an Ethernet network and run independently of any PC.

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