Netbook flash storage gets a standard connector

The mSATA specification uses the same plug and form factor as Mini PCI Express

A new SATA interface to be introduced Monday at the Intel Developer Forum will provide a standard for solid-state storage vendors to use when building components for netbooks and laptops.

The SATA International Organization (SATA-IO), which oversees the Serial Advanced Technology Attachment standard, will use IDF as the platform for introducing mini-SATA (mSATA). The standard, which has been completed and is heading into a final 30-day ratification phase, defines the smallest connector ever for SATA. Most current PC hard drives use some form of SATA interface to connect with the rest of the system.

SSDs have become a key part of small form factor portable systems, such as netbooks and ultrathin laptops, offering small size as well as speed and power-consumption benefits over HDDs (hard disk drives). There are SSDs that fit the size of a 2.5-inch or 1.8-inch HDD, but storage vendors are often faced with unique size requirements when trying to create smaller modules for particular devices, according to IDC analyst Jeff Janukowicz. With mSATA, they may be able to ship the same or similar parts for many systems and reduce the cost of the drives, he said.

SATA-IO took advantage of existing technology when it designed mSATA. The new standard takes up the same space in a system and the same physical connector as Mini PCI Express, though with different technology behind the hardware, said Knut Grimsrud, chairman of SATA-IO and Intel's director of storage architecture. Mini PCI Express cards are about the size of a standard business card.

The interface is for relatively small SSDs, most likely 32GB or 64GB multilevel chips with today's technology, Grimsrud said. These drives could be the primary storage in a system with limited uses, such as a corporate netbook not designed for consumer content, or supplement a larger SSD or HDD in a full-blown consumer PC. They might be used for underlying elements, such as the operating system and Microsoft Office, which could leave the larger drive free for content such as music and photos while also allowing the system to boot up and start applications more quickly. The new specification will support transfer rates of 1.5Gb per second and 3Gbps.

Development of mSATA began about nine months ago, Grimsrud said. In a press release, SATA-IO said the development was backed by system makers including Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo, as well as flash storage vendors such as Samsung and STEC. Manufacturers have had access to drafts of the specification and been able to start work on products, he said.

In conjunction with the announcement, SanDisk said it would show off mSATA modules in its booth at IDF, and Toshiba said it was introducing 30GB and 62GB mSATA modules. The Toshiba products were made using a 32-nanometer process and have a read speed of 180Mbps and a write speed of 50Mbps. The system vendors were not able to respond to questions about mSATA products last week.

Netbooks have whetted consumers' appetites for smaller systems, and they're constantly looking for something lighter than the last PC, so the smaller SATA specification should be a good thing, according to analyst Steve Duplessie of Enterprise Strategy Group.

"Smaller is always better," Duplessie said.

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