I have to admit, today’s Oldie But Goodie isn’t something I’m remembering fondly. A lot of people say things like, “those were the good old days” when they’re remembering something that they liked. For the record, I hated and still hate the IDE standard, but I can appreciate that it’s gotten us to where things stand today – those sexy, sexy coloured SATA cables that bend and buckle in every way you command. How did people back then cope with the hassle of the ribbon cable?

I know its ugly, get over it. It was my reality for years!

Firstly, let’s get into why we needed the damn thing in the first place.

The proper name to address this standard is ATA (AT Attachment). ATA was a standards adoption that was largely based off Western Digital’s IDE (Integrated Drive Electronics) connector and saw its first inclusion in IBM’s Personal Computer/AT units released in 1986 (Western Digital’s IDE connector was seen in other PC brands a year earlier). IBM’s PC/AT personal computer was made generally to the public in 1984 and was the first of the company’s models to use the rebranded PC-DOS, based on Microsoft’s MS-DOS. Getting the ATA standard into businesses and commercial markets was IBM’s goal and it largely succeeded all on its own. Devices using the ATA standard were referred to as ATAPI (ATA Packet Interface) devices and used a 44-pin cable.

Sometimes, this was the neatest that any competent system builder could do and the cables still stuck out like a sore thumb.

There were many limitations of ATA/ATAPI that prevented its use as an external peripheral connection standard. It had a maximum length of 457mm and could only accommodate two devices on one channel. Because technology wasn’t so advanced back then, no more than three ATAPI devices would appear on a single system until IBM and others started putting in extra connectors. The IDE standard was limited to drives of just 2GB in size. The first ATA standard, ATA-1 bumped that up to a massive 137GB and reigned supreme until the ATA-3 revision was dropped completely from the market in 2005. At its height, the ATA/ATAPI standard was present in just about every computer and professional camera on the planet. Yes, professional cameras were included as well, because the Compact Flash standard is an ATA-4 design.

Good riddance, you repulsive, frustrating, easily broken, snapped, cut and torn grey cable with forty damn pins for me to destroy. I hate all ribbon cables and jumped for joy when the standard was abolished.

The ATA/ATAPI standard was dropped for SATA for two very valid reasons:

1)      The only higher maximum address block larger than ATA-1 was the 144 Petabyte limit of ATA-6, commonly deployed in servers and wasn’t cheap. Something easier to deploy and sell to the public would be needed.

2)      The highest throughput any one ATAPI hard drive made in 2005 could obtain was a sustained 80MB/s. Modern SATA drives can peak at 157MB/s, with SSDs pushing the standard beyond 308MB/s.

So for better performance and the chance for the public to get its hands on cheaper drives and set up a RAID array without needing a gazillion cables that took up way too much space, SATA was introduced. After 2000, all ATA products were sold as PATA (Parallel ATA) in preparation for the move three years later. The move was prompted largely by data that Microsoft, Apple and the Linux community were gathering that PATA was growing increasingly slow and couldn’t be flexible enough for devices in the future.

Projects like these needed the flexibility SATA offered. Strangely, there’s one ATAPI drive in there.

Devices using the ATA/ATAPI standard transferred information in parallel form, sending over one block of data 16 bytes long at a time. It became a stumbling block later for large data transfers, especially in networks that experienced packet collisions during peak hours. Streaming information bit-by-bit over a higher-speed connection was the only way to move forward, which is what SATA does. In systems with two hard drives on the same channel, the bandwidth between each drive connected with the same ATA cable was shared, which didn’t help file copying either.

Having a parallel interface across multiple standards was a godsend at the time, however, because everything could communicate easier. Printers used the LTP port which was parallel in nature and the fact that you didn’t need to do any translation beyond turning data into a language the printer could understand meant that everything worked together very well. Many other devices at the time used parallel signalling and today the only two that still exist (and are used commonly, at least to the best of my knowledge and Google-fu) is the Compact Flash standard and the COM port. Today very few motherboards have parallel interfaces on them, choosing to eschew space reserved for the old COM and LTP ports on the back panel for more USB interfaces and standards like e-SATA and Thunderbolt. In fact, PS/2 is the last true legacy connection standard in use on most motherboard I/O panels for peripheral attachment. VGA is for screens so we’re discounting that for now.

This was the most common backplane design that still featured in Intel’s LGA775 boards and on most AM2/AM2+ systems. Notice that there’s only four USB ports – the rest of the available lanes were taken up by the legacy connectors.

In the switchover from PATA to SATA, many of the modes of communication used by older devices had to be emulated by software.  It was a very trying time for people who had laptops, for example, that came with SATA drives installed but still had the vanilla versions of Windows XP without the SATA driver slipstreamed into the install (NAG actually had a column way, way back then, when of one of the tech guys struggling with his own laptop’s reformatting process, if memory serves me right). The teething stage in the SATA adoption lasted for about a year, until the technology began to mature and people started seeing the benefits immediately. It also helped that XP discs with Service Pack 2 included the drivers and all OSes including Windows, Linux distros and Apple’s OS X have included SATA drivers by default.

But don’t think the ATA/ ATAPI standard is dead. Over the years it’s been refined and was the basis of the SATA 1.0 standard, also referred to as ATA/ATAPI-7. While data is no longer sent over in blocks of 16 bytes but streamed, it is still the basis on which all technology operates because the data is still assembled into the same 16-byte block at the end of the journey.  We honour the ATA standard today, then, for its contribution to bringing us from the dreaded ribbon cable to something as sexy as this:

And that’s why its today’s Oldie But Goodie. Have a great weekend guys!

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