Slow Going for FireWire 800?

Media pros at this week's NAB 2003 can look forward to new storage options that support the enhanced FireWire standard. Storage Supersite Editor David Morgenstern cautions that price, manufacturing constraints and unrealistic expectations may hobble FireW

As they seek faster routes to connect media professionals with their data, storage vendors at this weeks National Association of Broadcasters expo in Las Vegas will likely unveil new products that employ the FireWire 800 interface. In response, attendees will make the expected cooing noises over the standards improved throughput performance.

Despite the hype, vendors readying products for market said they expect that the next-generation FireWire could face a number of hurdles before widespread acceptance.

The market roadblocks appear to be constraints on some parts used in FireWire 800 products, the additional costs to vendors for FireWire 800 products, and the lack of native operating system support. However, the greatest problem looks to be the unrealistic expectations by customers for performance increases with the new interface.

According to industry sources, the supply of several components is constrained, including a physical layer (PHY) part from Texas Instruments Inc. and some cables. Although sure to resolve itself as manufacturers ramp up production, this situation raises costs for storage developers in the short term.

"Our strategy is to wait until we can offer our customers an affordable enclosure," said James Wiebe, CEO of Wichita, Kansas-based WiebeTech. The company sells many bare drive enclosures for user-installed upgrades as well as finished drives. He expects price and availability problems to ease by the end of the second quarter. "Our customers are calling about a FireWire 800 drive, and they think were clueless. We do have a clue—its that currently the cost is just too high."

Customer support for the FireWire 800 interface can also boost costs. LaCie North America said it will include three interface cables with the recently released FireWire 800 version of its Big Disk line of drives: an 800-to-800 cable; a 400-to-800 cable; and a USB 2.0 cable, since the drive also supports that interface.

Meanwhile, while the first FireWire 800 product announcements came in January, the only shipping computer models supporting the interface are Apple Computer Inc.s latest Power Macintosh G4 models and the 17-inch PowerBook G4, which shipped last month. Vendors with PCI host adapter cards still await solid drivers for Windows and even Mac OS X. "Native support in [Windows] XP would be very helpful," Wiebe added.

Vendors held mixed opinions about demand for the next-generation interface. It could be high or low, depending on the individual customers need for speed.

Scott Philips, LaCie North American CEO, wondered if the FireWire 800 will hold the same "wow factor" for customers as FireWire 400 did at its introduction. At that time, customers wanted an easy-to-use interface with throughput higher than USB 1.0s, as well as a connector for digital video applications. And for Mac users, Apple had switched away from SCSI as an interface for external storage.

Indeed, Philips said, FireWire 400 may offer "enough speed" for most users. While the newer FireWire 800 interface provides an increase of more than 25 percent in data-transfer performance and can span much longer distances via support for optical cabling, these benefits may be outweighed by the additional cost. Or customers may opt for capacity over performance gains. "The average MP3 collector doesnt care about speed as much as lots and lots of storage," he said.

At the same time, Wiebe wondered whether customers had inflated expectations for the performance to be gained from new interface. If an interfaces speed moves from 400 Mbits per second to 800 Mbits, then some folks might expect that their drives will also double in speed. Of course, the actual performance will be much less; the bottleneck will be the actual maximum performance available from the particular hard disk mechanism.

"Some will consider that a 25 percent to 35 percent jump in performance is great, but a lot of people think it should be double," Wiebe said. His companys tests showed greater performance increases for the recent high-capacity hard disks (180GB and above) and less speed gain for the popular 120GB mechanisms.

Was it P.T. Barnum who warned us never to underestimate exaggerated expectations of customers? No matter, this distinction will right itself quickly (or as soon as parts manufacturers ramp up production).

Regardless, there will be plenty of demand for FireWire 800 devices. Human nature will provide the push. Everyone wants something better, bigger and faster, and they will pay for the privilege. Few want something slower—even if its good enough.

David Morgenstern is a longtime reporter of the storage industry as well as a veteran of the dotcom boom in the storage-rich fields of professional content creation and digital video.