A first look at SATA Express with Asus’ Hyper Express storage device

SATA Express aims to unite the worlds of Serial ATA and PCI Express. The standard was introduced in 2011 and ratified two years later. Now, at last, the first compatible devices are nearly upon us. Select motherboards based on Intel’s 8+1 Series “next-gen” chipset have SATA Express connectors onboard. Asus is also working on a Hyper Express storage device that uses multiple SSDs to exploit the faster interface.

The Hyper Express drive is due this quarter, and I’ve been using a prototype to test upcoming motherboards. Expect full coverage of those boards soon. In the meantime, you can whet your appetite with a quick look at the drive.

Oooh, shiny.

Before we delve into specifics, it’s worth clarifying a few things about the SATA Express standard. According to the SATA-IO group behind the spec, “The SATA Express environment is pure PCIe.” It comprises dual lanes with support for Gen3 speeds. The fastest implementations can offer up to 2GB/s of bandwidth, while those based on Gen2 PCIe are capped at 1GB/s.

Although the standard is based on PCIe, the SATAe physical interface also accommodates Serial ATA devices. On a motherboard, the SATAe port is essentially two SATA ports plus a smaller, third connector to the left. Existing SATA drives should work in the port’s, er, ports, without issue.

SATA Express hosts must support both SATA and PCIe drives. SATA drives will be limited to the AHCI interface, while PCIe implementations can choose between AHCI and NVM Express. AHCI was conceived when mechanical hard drives were the norm, so it’s poorly suited to the radically different performance characteristics of solid-state storage. NVMe, on the other hand, was architected specifically for non-volatile memory like NAND flash. The interface promises lower latency than AHCI in addition to a simpler command set and reduced software overhead.

Windows 8.1 includes native drivers for both AHCI and NVMe, so SATA Express devices of either persuasion should work with the OS sans additional software. Device makers are free to provide their own drivers, of course. We didn’t get any with Asus’ Hyper Express prototype, which appears in the Windows Device Manager hanging off a “standard SATA AHCI controller” connected to the chipset’s PCIe interface.

While the Hyper Express appears as a single drive, it’s actually fueled by two. The 2.5″ prototype stripes a pair of mSATA SSDs in a RAID 0 array powered by an ASMedia ASM1062R controller chip. The chip isn’t listed online, but it seems to be an AHCI variant with dual Gen2 PCIe lanes and dual 6Gbps SATA ports. As for the drives, the unit we’ve been testing came loaded with a pair of Kingston SSDNow mS200 120GB SSDs. These SandForce-based offerings aren’t the fastest mSATA parts around, but users should be able to spec whatever they want with the finished product.

That final product will be housed in a larger 3.5″ case. Two configurations are slated for production: one that accommodates a pair of 2.5″ SATA drives, and another with pairs of M.2 and mSATA slots for mini SSDs. Both variants will apparently rely on the same RAID setup, but they’ll be sold as barebones kits, without drives installed. Pricing hasn’t been set.

Striping drives is a great way to improve performance, but there’s a gotcha for SSD arrays. RAID controllers don’t always know what to do with the TRIM command, which is used to combat flash memory’s block-rewrite penalty. The Hyper Express currently lacks TRIM support, so it’s forced to rely on the SSDs’ internal garbage collection routines to clean up unused flash pages. Asus concedes that TRIM is vital, and it sounds like the final versions of the Hyper Express will implement the feature.

Interestingly, the Hyper Express does employ SRIS, a PCI Express provision otherwise known as Separate Refclock with Independent SSC (Spread-Spectrum Clocking). PCIe devices normally sync with a 100MHz reference clock that’s passed over the interface by the host. That’s fine for slot-based solutions, but it’s trickier for cabling, which requires costly shielding to handle that sort of signal. SRIS employs a separate clock generator on the device, removing the need to pass the reference signal over the interface.

In addition to supporting SRIS at the device level, Asus has integrated the feature into its motherboard firmware. SRIS was implemented with cooperation from Intel as part of an effort to validate SATA Express. “Our SATA Express solution is the only one to have undergone full SRIS testing and validation to ensure the true potential of the interface is realized,” Asus says.

SATA Express devices will ship with their own cables, so there’s an incentive for other drive makers to support SRIS. We’re waiting to hear back from other motherboard makers to see if they’re following suit.

By the way, the cable that came with the prototype is pliable, neatly sheathed, and equipped with its own little power dongle. The PSU’s power connector plugs into the dongle rather than the drive.

Before I share a quick benchmark result, keep in mind that this is pre-production hardware. The drives are also in a used state. My usual secure-erase methods don’t recognize the Hyper Express, though Asus says the firmware in its newer ROG motherboards has an integrated tool that does. Either way, the numbers are quasi-meaningless. Make of them what you will.

Yep, the Hyper Express prototype is faster than a typical 6Gbps SATA drive. It will be interesting to see how the final version stacks up, especially versus a comparable RAID config tied to the Intel chipset’s RAID controller. Intel’s RST drivers have supported TRIM for RAID 0 arrays since 2012, so the built-in alternative is already one step ahead.

Still, Asus deserves credit for being the first to show off SATA Express hardwareβ€”and for implementing SRIS. We’ll soon see whether the company’s focus on SATAe translates to a superior implementation on next-gen motherboards. Stay tuned.

Comments closed
    • Tumbleweed
    • 6 years ago

    I’ve apparently lost track of things – I thought we were all waiting for M.2 to become a thing on mobos? Is that going to be faster? Why would you want one over the other?

    • UnfriendlyFire
    • 6 years ago

    Ah… IDEs! It’s like 2001 all over again!

    Oh wait. Darn, I must be getting old, and I’m only a college student.

    • DrDillyBar
    • 6 years ago

    /Addtocart

    • StorageGuy
    • 6 years ago

    If you want to learn more about SATA Express, check out [url<]http://www.sata-io.org/sata-express[/url<], especially the Why SATA Express whitepaper [url<]http://www.sata-io.org/sites/default/files/documents/Why_SATA_Express.pdf[/url<]

      • StorageGuy
      • 6 years ago

      Sorry, my first attempt at using BBCode tags was not very successful. You’ll have to copy and paste the URLs.

        • ferdinandh
        • 6 years ago

        You have to use it like this:
        [ URL=http://www.sata-io.org/sata-express]sata-io.org/sata-express[/URL ]

        • morphine
        • 6 years ago

        Fixed it for you. BBCode tags are meant to be lowercase. Everything was correct apart from that πŸ™‚

    • Krogoth
    • 6 years ago

    SATA Express is really meant for smaller form factors. You have SATA Express slots on the motherboards you can either drop in discrete SSD cards, SSD SATA devices themselves directly into the slot or plug in cabling for 2.5″ and 3.5″ devices that are housed in internal storage bays. SATA Express offers a ton of flexibility.

    It doesn’t really increase bandwidth by much since it has to retain compatibility with existing SATA devices.

    • Voldenuit
    • 6 years ago

    WTH… that cable/port interface looks as bulky and cumbersome as old IDE connectors.

    If thunderbolt can route 4 lanes of PCIE over a miniDisplayPort connection, why can’t Sata Express have similarly compact connectors?

      • Haserath
      • 6 years ago

      They wanted backwards compatibility with sata and they apparently added power to it. Terrible. I heard the cable itself is north of $1 when sata cables now are $.30. I have so many extra cables too; it’s going to be such a waste…

    • cynan
    • 6 years ago

    [quote<]Striping drives is a great way to improve performance, but there's a gotcha for SSD arrays. RAID controllers don't always know what to do with the TRIM command, which is used to combat flash memory's block-rewrite penalty[/quote<] All higher end Intel chipsets from the 7-series onward (and even some 6 series boards with modded storage controller roms) support TRIM in RAID 0, and have done so for over 1.5 years, making this solution even less appealing. But I can't really see a need for external RAID 0 SSDs. People already get ridiculed for using RAID 0 SSDs for a boot device due to the risk of data loss (though I use it anyway in one of my PCs). And now RAID 0 SSDs for external storage? Besides, isn't it just a matter of time before affordable PCIe gen3 SATA controller cards will be available, making this half-conceived proprietary garbage moot?. Although I think we've yet to see PCIe gen3 x1 slots? And what about USB 3.0? Isn't the latest version capable of 10Gb/s bandwidth? Surely this will be sufficient for any current SSDs in RAID 0? 10Gb/s is almost 1200 megabytes/s. I don't think that any pair of current consumer SSDs in RAID 0 can exceed that. Why not just make a USB 3.0 enclosure and make sure your latest motherboard offering supports the 10Gb standard? Also, the fact that we haven't seen PCIe gen3 pushed anywhere but for slots meant for GPUs (perhaps outside of the odd server motherboard) probably means that most people don't have any real need for external storage transfer rates in excess of gen2 bandwidth (about 500 megabytes/s).

      • StuffMaster
      • 6 years ago

      Holy SSD RAID over USB? Oh no no no no no.

        • cynan
        • 6 years ago

        Care to explain why? There are external storage solutions that already do this.

          • Farting Bob
          • 6 years ago

          And you wouldnt want to install a system drive in such a thing. USB is not designed for such things, it adds latency and sucks for the kind of operations a system drive does. Its fine for sequential read/writes but you’ll notice huge slowdowns by putting an SSD (let alone 2 in RAID) in a USB enclosure.

            • cynan
            • 6 years ago

            I guess I was assuming external storage is mostly about sequential transfers.

    • d0g_p00p
    • 6 years ago

    Would be cool to test this against the Asus Runway with a native SATAExpress PCIe card

    • derFunkenstein
    • 6 years ago

    The future of storage: now with infinitely more Y cables. Yikes. I was hoping that smaller port was for power and that you’d only need one cable for SATA Express.

    • TwoEars
    • 6 years ago

    This thing is so stupid.

    Words fail me.

    • Norphy
    • 6 years ago

    So hold on. This hyperdrive thing is essentially a pair of SATA SSDs connected to a PCIe RAID controller which then connects to a SATA express port? So at best this thing is going to perform as well as a pair of SATA SSDs on a normal RAID controller and it’s not going to give an accurate representation of what the standard is actually capable of. The overheads that SATA Express is supposed to eliminate are still there with this thing surely?

    Seems a bit silly to me if that’s right.

      • willmore
      • 6 years ago

      Plus, they’re using PCI-e 2.0 rather than 3.0, so there’s half the bandwidth lost right there.

      Seems more like a technology demonstration than anything a sane company would ship.

        • Flatland_Spider
        • 6 years ago

        Lot’s of people have made a lot of money selling stupid ideas.

        This actually rather practical, and a good way to drive mSSD sales.

      • maxxcool
      • 6 years ago

      Yah…. kinda like stuffing vacuum welded pinto engines in a Ferrari ..

      • TwistedKestrel
      • 6 years ago

      I think it’s largely safe to look at the Hyper Express dongle as largely a demo tool for SATA Express. They’ve got to show that it works somehow!

    • kc77
    • 6 years ago

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but this seems like an attempt to break compatibility between enterprise (SAS) and [s<]enterprise[/s<] consumer (SATA). Rather than expand SATA to the 12Gb/s standard to keep pace with SAS and maintain flexibility in the enterprise space, they have created a new standard that's not compatible. This means in the enterprise space that if you want more speed you will be forced to go to 12Gb/s SAS or you'll have to settle with a 6 Gb/s interface, which means hard drive manufacturers will be able to charge more (way more) because SATA isn't there to keep the prices in check at the higher data rate.

      • chuckula
      • 6 years ago

      [quote<]This means in the enterprise space that if you want more speed . . . [/quote<] In the enterprise space, if you want more speed you add more parallelism with big broad storage controllers that use arrays of hundreds or thousands of drives. SATAe in this form isn't intended to replace a giant storage array. It is intended to get around the bottlenecks of old technology that was expressly designed to handle a spinning magnetic disk when SSDs operate in a fundamentally different manner.

        • September
        • 6 years ago

        Or you stick 3TB FusionIO card(s) in one or more of your x8 PCIe slots and go home.

          • kc77
          • 6 years ago

          I’m pretty sure I would rather use those cards to increase I/O performance of smaller data sets than using them for mass storage.

        • kc77
        • 6 years ago

        It doesn’t look like you read what I wrote.

        Adding more drives or increasing parallelism is completely different than describing how much bandwidth is available. Adding “parallelism” in storage isn’t going to do a damn thing if the backplane or bandwidth per port is insufficient.

        Second, within storage at the enterprise level you can use either SAS or SATA. SATA was a specification that was compatible with SAS. You could use SATA disks of the 6Gb/s variety (disk or SSD) with SAS controllers (you know the ones you find in mass storage?). This ability was good because sometimes SATA is good enough. A lot of people in enterprise will use enterprise SATA disks in lieu of disks of the SAS variety because they provided 90% of what they needed at 25 – 50% reduction in cost per drive.

        Through the inception of SAS and SATA the interoperability and the transfer rate pretty much stayed in lock step. SATA disks could be used within SAS enclosures and achieve close enough performance. SATA Express or SATA 3.2 doesn’t increase the transfer rate of SATA itself. Instead if you want an increase this will be done via SATA Express / PCIe. The transfer rate of SATA remains unchanged. This change severs the interoperability and locks transfer rates to SAS alone, which will drive up the cost of those drives for many reasons.

          • Scrotos
          • 6 years ago

          Oh who cares, most of the “enterprise” SSDs only come in SATA interfaces anyway. I’ve been whining about that in almost every product announcement on TR for an “enterprise” SSD.

          I just don’t think any vendors really want to dump SSD onto SAS. And honestly, once you build out a system with whatever drive/interface of your choice, it’s not like you’re swapping out drives very often to upgrade your storage every time a new standard comes out. Or at least, I don’t. Pretty much once the servers have their storage set, I’m loathe to mess with it. Maybe if I build a new server and migrate the functions over, that’s time to update the hardware and storage, but I don’t do much if any in-place upgrades. And you really get diminishing returns putting the latest SSDs in older hardware with limits on the speed the backplanes support.

      • Krogoth
      • 6 years ago

      SATA Express = mainstream tier

      NVM Express = enterprise tier

      SATA Express was meant to work with existing SATA devices on the market while being able to handle newer SSD cards that connect directly to it via discrete cards or a straight SSD drive. The cost of this flexability is that has limited headroom in bandwidth but mainstream doesn’t *need* several GB/s worth of I/O throughput.

      NVM Express is geared towards discrete cards and resembles PCI Express more than its SATA Express cousin. The only difference is NVM Express is more hot-swapping friendly and it has native booting support without resorting to interesting hacks like the current breed of SSD PCI Express cards.

    • Farting Bob
    • 6 years ago

    That’s the worst cable design ive ever seen. For something that was years in planning it looks like they only realised it needed a new design at 4:55pm on a friday so just taped together a couple of SATA ports and went home.

      • colinstu12
      • 6 years ago

      it allows for backwards compatibility, what more do you want? Buying adapter cables instead?

        • Flatland_Spider
        • 6 years ago

        Yes.

        • albundy
        • 6 years ago

        backward compatibility for what? all boards already have multiple sata connectors. thats like saying that each sata port should have two ide ports connected to it. this is just not well thought out.

      • Duck
      • 6 years ago

      Ah just trying to imagine if they did that with the AGP to PCIe transition… take an AGP port and glue on a few extra buses and a power dongle xD

        • Forge
        • 6 years ago

        Ah, so I see you’re new around here. We did EXACTLY THAT and called it AGP Pro. Thanks for playing!

        [url<]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accelerated_Graphics_Port#AGP_Pro[/url<]

          • Scrotos
          • 6 years ago

          VLBus whaaaat?

          [url<]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VESA_Local_Bus[/url<]

    • UberGerbil
    • 6 years ago

    That cable is just aesthetically unpleasing. It’s not very technically elegant either.

      • aceuk
      • 6 years ago

      I reckon whoever designed that cable must have got some inspiration from micro USB 3.0 cables. πŸ™‚

        • ferdinandh
        • 6 years ago

        Agreed. It is horrible. The cable is also horrible. The slight speed increase from 0.6GB/s to 2.0GB/s is also horrible.
        Why do they create these interim solutions?

          • Flatland_Spider
          • 6 years ago

          Because no one will pay for the good stuff. (eg. Thunderbolt)

            • Shambles
            • 6 years ago

            Erm, Thunderbolt is barely faster than SATA Express. Going from 16Gbps to 20 Gbps isn’t going to be very noticeable.

          • d0g_p00p
          • 6 years ago

          600MB/sec to 2.0GB/sec is a “horrible interim” solution?

    • UberGerbil
    • 6 years ago

    Somebody around here kept asking for 3.5″ SSDs. Looks like your entreaties have been answered.

      • aceuk
      • 6 years ago

      Asus’ Hyper Express SSD is a 2.5″ SSD though.

        • UberGerbil
        • 6 years ago

        I was referring to [quote<]That final product will be housed in a larger 3.5" case. [/quote<]

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