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Group promises speedier server drives

Compaq Computer, IBM and the biggest hard drive makers are beginning a program to revamp high-end disk drives with the same technology being brought to lower-end models.

Compaq Computer, IBM and the biggest hard drive manufacturers have begun a program to revamp high-end disk drives with the same technology being brought to lower-end models.

For years, there have been two competing standards for plugging disk drives into computers: the ATA technique used in PCs and the faster but more expensive SCSI method used in servers.

To ensure ATA keeps pace with ever-faster computers, a consortium has begun work on a new standard called Serial ATA. Now SCSI is receiving the same makeover, a new consortium with many of the same members announced Monday.

Hard drives are a key bottleneck in computers, doubly so for servers that often struggle to keep up with computing loads such as keeping track of all a bank's ATM transactions.

Data that isn't stored directly in a computer's memory chips must be pulled from vastly slower hard drives, and the lag times of that process directly affects the performance of servers as they read or write information in databases.

Designers have employed a variety of crutches to compensate: using arrays of numerous drives operating as a single system, spinning the individual drives' disks faster and incorporating into the drives memory chips that can store information a server is likely to need.

Serial connections are cropping up all over the computing industry as a way to speed up data transfer between different components currently joined by parallel wires called a "bus." Speeding up bus transfer speeds typically involves making it wider--going from 32 to 64 wires, for example--but doing so makes it harder to ensure signals are synchronized across the wires.

Serial lines, by contrast, can use separate clocks on each wire, getting around synchronization problems and allowing data to be transmitted more quickly. Serial lines are used in the 3GIO technology that's succeeding the PCI bus and in the Firewire and USB connection technologies.

The Serial Attached SCSI Working Group includes several top hard drive makers--Seagate, Maxtor and IBM--along with chipmaker LSI Logic and Compaq. Endorsing the move was Western Digital, another hard disk maker, along with Adaptec, Fujitsu, Hitachi, QLogic and Broadcom subsidiary ServerWorks.

The working group expects products supporting its technology to arrive in 2004.

The group didn't release expected transfer speeds for the new standard, but a significant boost can be expected if the Serial ATA experience is indicative. Serial ATA promises speeds of 1.5 gigabits per second, nearly twice the 800 megabits per second supplied by the current version, ATA 100.