Symbios releases 1394 kit; adoption may be years away
By Zachary Shess
Looking to set a framework for adoption of the 1394 interface, Symbios recently announced that select OEMs will begin using its new development kit to produce CD-ROM drives that incorporate the high-speed bus interface.
The IEEE 1394 implementation is a cross-platform interface regarded by some observers to be the next- generation standard for high-speed, low-cost communication between PCs and peripherals. The standard defines a backplane physical layer (operating at 12.5, 25, or 50Mbps) and a point-to-point, cable-connected bus supporting data transfer rates of 100, 200, and 400Mbps.
"Our intent is to provide a way for customers to gain expertise and understanding of 1394, as well as to help the market emerge," says company spokesperson Lynette Szantho. From there, Symbios envisions implementation moving away from just 1394-compliant drives to more integrated solutions.
The SYM13FW301 CD-ROM Decoder development kit is the third 1394-related kit from Symbios. The first two were a three-port cable interface and a PCI-to-1394 host adapter. Priced at $1,995, the SYM13FW301 controller includes a 48x CD-ROM decoder, a 1394-compliant link chip that integrates several functions in one package, a 1394-compliant link layer function, and a 400Mbps physical interface. The 48x CD-ROM decoder is in a CD-ROM emulator environment with a PCI bridge, firmware, and documentation. The contents are supported by Microsoft drivers so that suppliers can more easily migrate existing drives to 1394 with minimal risk and development expense.
"With disk drive manufacturers having such low profit margins, the pressure to move to a new interface has to be very great for them to embark on R&D and engineering efforts. We`ve insulated them from that by offering a complete solution," says Matt Pujol, Symbios` 1394 systems engineer. "The development kit gets those companies involved in using the interface, and they can make some early products without having to take a big risk on development. Once they see fit, they can take the next step, which is a fully integrated 1394 interface rather than a bridge."
With developers freed from following tricky standards, combined with other leading vendors--such as Adaptec--releasing 1394-compliant products, Symbios officials anticipate that some OEMs will see a fruitful enough market to begin production of 1394 CD-ROM drives by the end of this year, with significant shipments starting in 1999. For example, Mitsumi Electronics and its research and development division, Alpha Peripherals, produced proof-of-concept Device Bay CD-ROM drives with 1394 interfaces for last fall`s Comdex show. The units were built with Symbios` development kits.
Despite Symbios` forecasts for 1394, other vendors and industry analysts are not sure when the interface`s ultimate implementation and acceptance will occur, or if it will happen at all. Quantum and Intel jointly developed the Ultra ATA/33 protocol, which has become an alternative to 1394. ATA/33, with a burst transfer rate of 33.3MBps, has been succeeded recently by ATA/66, which doubles the speed. While these protocols are viewed as interim steps to eventual 1394 acceptance, Quantum officials believe it will be years before disk drive and PC manufacturers see the need to completely incorporate 1394.
"Right now, 1394 hasn`t been properly settled, so it`s very difficult for PC manufacturers to get into designing products around it when specifications are not set," says Steve Wilkins, product planning manager at Quantum.
Some analysts agree. "I think it will be a relatively slow migration from the current ATA to 1394," says Wolfgang Schlichting, research manager for removable storage at International Data Corp., a market research firm in Framingham, MA. "Most companies are keeping their options open because 1394 is in the very early stages. By the time its potential unfolds, there might be other choices out there as well. From what I`ve seen, there are very few companies that want to fully commit to this technology."