PALM SPRINGS, Calif.The parallel interface ribbon cable, long an internal staple of PCs, may soon be a computing relic. A group of PC industry companies is pushing to develop an industry specification that would drop the parallel interface in favor of a serial design.
Known as Serial ATA, the new interface would affect all "in-the-box" storage systems, including hard disk drives, floppies, CD-ROMs, DVDs and others. Like today's Parallel ATA interface, Serial ATA would connect the storage devices to the computer's motherboard. It could be in use by 2003.
The industry group, which unveiled its plans at this week's Intel Developer Forum, includes IBM Corp., Dell Computer Corp., Seagate Technology, APT Technologies Inc., Quantum Corp., Maxtor Corp. and Intel. Its members say that the main advantage of a serial interface is greater computing bandwidth.
"The parallel storage interface we use today was designed more than 15 years ago and is a potential bottleneck for tomorrow's more powerful computing platform," said Pat Gelsinger, vice president and general manager of Intel's Desktop Products Group.
The first generation of Serial ATA interfaces would enable data transfer rates of 1.6 Gbits/sec. The second and third generations would both double in speed, going to 3 Gbits/sec and 6 Gbits/sec, respectively.
Because Serial ATA also would replace the 26-pin connector and ribbon cable with a thin wire, engineers say it would offer packaging and cooling advantages, too. Today's broader ribbon cables, they say, take up too much space and obstruct the flow of air through the computer.
Companies involved in the creation of the new spec claim that it would not add cost for the PC maker or the storage device manufacturer. Because the old and new specifications both involve ATA systems, Serial ATA would be a "drop-in" replacement, they say.
"We're not talking about being cost competitive at some certain volume," said Knut Grimsrud, senior staff systems architect for Intel in Hillsboro, OR. "We're talking about being cost competitive now."
Industry experts point out, however, that this isn't the first industry effort to replace the venerable parallel interface. A few years ago, several industry firms mounted an effort to promote an IEEE 1394 interface. That idea never took hold, however, because licensing royalties added unexpected costs-maybe as much as $0.25 per systemwhich users didn't want to pay.
The group promoting Serial ATA, however, is already working to head off such problems. A group spokesman said that companies building compliant products would not face potential litigation. "A non-royalty-bearing license is key to the success of this interface," said Steve Spina, director of marketing for scalable platforms initiatives for Intel.
Those familiar with Parallel ATA technology see little or no downside to the switch. "It's possible that there could be some negligible latencies and power management still has to be done correctly," said Bill Gervasi, an engineering technology analyst for Transmeta Corp., Santa Clara, CA. "But it's good that someone is doing it. It's long overdue."