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HARDWARE

State-Of-The-Art Standards – SATA Express (Part 4)

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The alternative software foundation that SATA Express PCI-E devices will support is NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express), which was built from the ground up to support SSDs. NVMe can handle up to 64,000 queues with 64,000 simultaneous commands each. NVMe was first proposed in 2011, but SATA Express is the first time the technology has been implemented and available (at least as engineering samples). As such, support for it is significantly more limited than with AHCI.

IDT, LSI, and Intel are members of the NVMe working group, but more companies are sure to hop on board as the standard progresses

IDT, LSI, and Intel are members of the NVMe working group,
but more companies are sure to hop on board as the standard progresses

NVMe isn’t compatible with SATA software, but you can visit nvmexpress page to access drivers for Windows, Linux, and other operating systems. The LSI SandForce SF3700 controller family, which came out late last year, supports NVMe-based devices, but none were available to consumers for purchase at press time. At CES 2014, a Kingston HyperX prototype with this controller (expected to support NVMe via post-launch firmware update) can use four PCI-E 2.0 lanes to achieve up to 1,800MBps sequential read/write speeds and 150K/81K random IOPS. NVMe-based components are slated to appear in the second half of 2014.

SATA 3.2 Miscellanea

Typically, protocol revisions include a number of improvements and changes, and SATA 3.2 is no exception. In addition to SATA Express, the updated protocol also brings with it support for microSSDs, or single-chip SATA SSDs that are ideally suited to embedded storage applications. The Universal Storage Module, which was a part of the SATA 3.1 revision, gets a form factor revision, which shrinks the module’s thickness from 14.5mm to 9mm, called USM Slim. This update is targeted at improving the removable and expandable storage options for gadgets.

To bolster the protocol’s power efficiency, SATA 3.2 includes the new DevSleep specification, which lets the storage device conserve energy by entering a very low power state. This feature is designed to improve battery life in Ultrabooks, as the new protocol’s Transitional Energy Reporting feature, which provides the SATA host with granular data about the storage device and its energy consumption to improve the efficiency of switching between power management modes.

Innodisk Releases World's First Industrial-Embedded SATA µSSD

Innodisk Releases World's First Industrial-Embedded SATA µSSD

With SSHDs (that is, hard drives with integrated flash storage designed for caching) growing in popularity, SATA 3.2 contains a tweak that lets the host queue commands for the reading and writing of log data, which improves performance of these types of storage devices.

Finally, those with a RAID array will appreciate the new Rebuild Assist feature, which lets the SATA host identify the corrupted data on a failed drive in the RAID array so that it can more quickly rebuild that data on a replacement device.

When Can I Get SATA Express?

As we went to press, SATA Express was nowhere to be found on Intel’s or AMD’s chipset roadmaps. That doesn’t mean that the protocol won’t make the chipset varsity team eventually; it just won’t be happening in the immediate future, namely in Intel’s Haswell-E revamp scheduled to land later this year.

The next generation Intel Haswell-E series

The next generation Intel Haswell-E series

We don’t have a specific time frame for SATA Express, but there are a lot of stars that have to align first. Motherboard makers like ASUS and GIGABYTE have to begin selling retail boards that support the standard; SATA Express controllers have to become available, likely starting with LSI Sandforce, which may be holding out until NVMe read/write performance (and, likely, OS-level driver support for NVMe) is good enough to be a compelling alternative to AHCI-based devices; and finally, major SSD manufacturers need to put those controllers to use by making SATA Express PCI-E SSDs available for purchase. Arguably, all of these could happen in a relatively short amount of time, or it could take significantly longer than anyone expects. Our money’s on sooner rather than later.

 

 

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