A quick guide to SATA 6Gbps

What is it?
SATA 6Gbps is the next generation of the Serial ATA connectors and its technology, used for connecting up the majority of the computer’s hard disk drives, optical drives and similar devices seen around today.

The new standard was first announced by SATA’s governing body, the Serial ATA International Organization (SATA-IO) mid last year and first demonstrated at the Intel developer’s conference late in August.

More recently, Seagate and AMD jointly demonstrated the world’s first SATA 6Gbps hard drive and chipset at Everything Channel Xchange Conference in New Orleans in early March, showing the technology is much more ready than first thought and that we could be seeing products much sooner.

Just as with USB 3.0 from last week, its key feature is the increased speed over the current technology, SATA 3Gbps also known as SATA-II. Also the ports and technology will be backwards compatible, so migration from one to the other will be simple in the long run just as it was from the first SATA devices to the SATA 3Gbps.

What are the variations of the technology?
There really aren’t any variations that have been made public on the next version of SATA nor do we expect any to be. It will be as standard as the common place connecting ports of USB and SATA, seen today.

The new standard builds upon what’s already in SATA 3Gbps and improves on the way data is handled by the computer. There are also subtle changes in the way the likes of video is handled within streaming, plus the larger amounts of data being manipulated and all possibly from a slightly higher power consumption level.

Existing cables today will still be able to be used in the future with SATA 6Gbps, with no additions needed as it’s running from the exact same connectors. This removes the headache and additional learning curve, which often puts some people off with new technology.

Why should I care?
Currently SATA 3Gbps is capable of delivering transfer speeds of around 300 megabytes per second, whereas this new technology SATA 6Gbps as the name suggests will double that at 600. Putting that into perspective, the bus connector is measured in bits per second and hard drives are in megabytes or terabytes all of which is very important to differentiate between.

At the moment there really is no hard drive around that has maxed out the existing technology in its throughput, but the likes of SSDs are at the very brink of it.

There’s even talk that many hard drives or similar peripherals could share the same cable within the implementation of the SATA 6Gbps new standard, much like the old ATA or PATA cabling scenarios of yesteryear. This saves the need for one cable being used for just one device in the current option, this will allow much more storage expansion inside a single system.

What's a good example in practice?
The technology seems to be here now and the standards close to finalisation, although no products are around as yet we're hoping the adoption for this will be sooner than in the past. We expect to start seeing systems including SATA 6Gbps, as we do storage products and their ilk later on this year, or early next.

Due to the large possible throughputs, hard drives are the obvious choice for the SATA 6Gbps adoption. More appropriately, the larger hard drives with lots of data going back and forth would benefit first.

After that, the second most obvious choice if not the first would clearly be Solid State Drives (SSD) in benefiting from the new standard, as we’ve already stated the bottleneck is being reached.

The likes of high definition movies, either the playback of media or even burning media to writeable Blu-ray discs could show some worth in SATA 6Gbps. If not now, then in the future, as the current fastest burning speeds are 6x Blu-ray writeable discs with 216 Mbps in possible data transfer rates. This doesn’t even top out SATA 3Gbps. But who knows what the future may hold there.

Coupling hard drives together for fault tolerance in simple RAID setups would also be a useful way of capitalising on the speeds of SATA 6Gbps, especially within the maximum speed throughputs possible.

Is there a competing technology that I should be aware of?
The closest technology around today which matches SATA 6Gbps is SAS 6Gbps, which has been shipping now for some time. This is the serial attached SCSI that’s the upgrade of the old style enterprise hard drive standard, which closely matches the evolutionary path of ATA to SATA as they both came out of the same developmental roadmap.

There are also similarities shared between the two, with the likes of the physical layer and other aspects taken from the development path of the enterprise SAS technology seen around today.

What is in store for the future?
It’s been said the final specifications are very close to being fully ratified, with the next stage of the adoption being companies implementing the new standard within their new systems, hopefully later on this year or early next year.

As with USB 3.0 from last week, the first incorporators will most likely be the motherboard manufacturers such as ASUS and MSI, who are usually the first adopters and often the leaders.

Moving on from there, or even at the same time are the peripheral manufacturers who will be the next ones to utilise SATA 6Gbps by manufacturing drives with those connectors.

This year AMD has already successfully aired a prototype of a PC running the SATA 6Gbps chipset, with a prototype Seagate Barracuda 6Gbps hard drive. With those two already being first to partner and to show off what is capable, we’re expecting both of them to be the first, with new SATA standards being actually implemented within the year.

Most of the hard drive companies are members of the SATA-IO organisation and are ready to deliver SATA 6Gbps products, if and when they find the customer needs them.

Seagate has already announced it is working on a SSD SATA 6Gbps based drive that will match that drive's performance to the infrastructure itself.