A new handshake for mini hard drives?

Intel, Hitachi, Toshiba and others propose CE-ATA, a new interface for miniature hard drives used in consumer electronics.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
4 min read
A consortium of companies wants to build on the progress of the Serial ATA hard drive interface in PCs by creating a similar offering for consumer electronics devices.

The companies, which include Intel, Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, Marvell Semiconductor, Seagate Technology and Toshiba America Information Systems, proposed on Thursday at Intel's Developer Forum in San Francisco the development of CE-ATA, a new drive interface for miniature hard drives. Such drives are often used to store data in handheld consumer electronics, including devices such as Apple Computer's iPod music player. Samsung also built one into its SPH-V5400 cellular phone recently.

The CE-ATA interface involves creating a new way to address the major concerns of consumer electronics manufacturers--things including the cost, size and power consumption of devices--potentially helping gadget makers create sleeker battery-powered handheld devices for consumers.

The proposed specification will be conceptually similar to the Serial ATA interface for PC and server hard drives, which has become more widely used over the last year. That means CE-ATA will replace parallel interfaces and the familiar ribbonlike cables with a serial connection that uses much smaller, thin cables and connectors with fewer pins, which the companies say will help cut power consumption and cost. But CE-ATA will be developed separately with handhelds and CE devices in mind, meaning it won't necessarily match the bandwidth provided by Serial ATA, said Knut Grimsrud, Intel's principal engineer for CE-ATA.

Serial ATA-like performance in a music player would just be "overkill," Grimsrud said. Instead, the consortium's "purpose is to design a new drive interface tailored to the consumer electronics and handheld gadget segment."

John Monroe, analyst at researcher Gartner, called the CE-ATA effort a "good initiative." The proposed specification could reduce drives' emphasis on correcting errors, which matters much more for banking applications than for serving up video pixels, Monroe said. An industrywide standards effort also is preferable to different companies arriving at idiosyncratic interfaces, according to Monroe. That route leads to "stupid DVD wars," he said, referring to the format battles over types of recordable DVDs.

The CE-ATA consortium expects to complete a specification for the interface during the first half of 2005. Thus, products supporting the newly minted interface could be available as little as a few months later, the consortium said in a statement.

Serial ATA growing up
Though miniature hard drives appear to be heading for an interface makeover, the body responsible for the development of Serial ATA interfaces has itself already received one. The Serial ATA International Organization, a new governing body for Serial ATA, announced Thursday, replaces the all-volunteer Serial ATA Working Group.

Called SATA-IO for short, it will take over tasks such as Serial ATA technology development and marketing as well as interoperability testing for devices that use the specification. The SATA-IO will also work to expand its membership ranks with more companies in industries such as hard drives, optical storage, storage controller and storage semiconductors, as well as computer system builders.

"For the first time, we'll actually have real resources to undertake efforts that were intractable to do before on a volunteer basis," said Grimsrud, who is also chairman of the new SATA-IO.

The SATA-IO's first major task will be to steward along the latest Serial ATA specification, a new version of the interface that doubles bandwidth to 3 gigabits per second and was first published in July.

Grimsrud said he expects that some of the first devices that use 3-gigabit Serial ATA will be so-called port multipliers, which take one host connection and fan it out to multiple devices. Seagate, for one, also demonstrated at IDF a disk drive using the interface.

External Serial ATA, a version of the interface created for attaching external drives to a PC, is also working its way into the market. Although it promises higher bandwidths than other ways to connect drives, such as Universal Serial Bus or Firewire, External Serial ATA will be more limited, working only with portable hard drives, external CD burners and similar drives.

When it comes to PCs, manufacturers have also begun producing samples of Serial ATA interface hard drives for notebook PCs, according to Michael O. Trainor, a technology evangelist for Intel. Intel, for one, uses Serial ATA hard drives in its Florence concept notebook PCs. The concepts were created to show off a number of possibilities for the way manufacturers could design 2005 notebooks using Intel hardware.

The drives, which are in widespread use in desktops and servers but have yet to find their way into notebooks, are expected to hit large volumes during the fourth quarter, Trainor said. Notebook versions of optical drives, such as CD-burners, that use Serial ATA are expected to come out in 2005, he said.

At the same time that Serial ATA is improving on the parallel ATA interface traditionally found in PCs, the higher-end SCSI interface also has been getting an upgrade with a serial approach. So-called Serial-attached SCSI technology aims to improve on the SCSI interface often found in server computers with features such as speedy data transfers and flexibility. The specification allows for 3 gigabits-per-second performance, and can accommodate Serial-attached SCSI drives and Serial ATA drives in the same machine. The SCSI Trade Association group sponsored a demonstration of this interoperability at IDF this week.

CNET News.com's Richard Shim contributed to this report.