High-Performance Storage On ASRock's Z97 Extreme6
When the Advanced Host Controller Interface was standardized a decade ago, it was built around mechanical storage. In truth, it did an admirable job replacing the moribund IDE standard that preceded it. And even as SSDs came into their own, this programming interface to SATA was still good enough. At least at first.
Today, it’s holding SSDs back. Solid-state storage doesn’t need to exist in the same form factors as mechanical storage, nor does it need the same kind of programming interface. Intel's Z97 Express platform controller hub, which Thomas covered for the first time in Intel Z97 Express: Five Enthusiast Motherboards, $120 To $160, gives us the newest example of enabling SSDs in many shapes and sizes. It takes us away from a vestigial SATA/AHCI ecosystem to a new place where PCIe and SATA Express create an even clearer distinction between mechanical and solid-state storage.
As you start seeing more M.2 PCIe- and SATA Express-equipped boards, think future-ready. Neither plug will do you a ton of good initially. But they pave the way for a new world of storage on the desktop and in mobile applications. You get SATA ports for legacy devices, and the newer interfaces for the latest SSDs. At some point in the future, we'll get to a place where we can forgo AHCI altogether, and instead reap the benefits of solid-state storage through AHCI’s replacement, NVMe.
Meet ASRock's Z97 Extreme6
Serving as our spirit guide through this uncharted landscape is ASRock’s Z97 Extreme6. Thomas wasn't particularly bowled over by Z97's evolutionary changes. But I couldn't help but wonder whether the chipset enables storage nirvana (there isn't much to differentiate Z97 from Z87, after all).
The Z97 Extreme6 is one of ASRock's higher-end models with support for multi-GPU configurations, premium audio, and overclocking. But my interests in it are specific to the platform's storage capabilities.
The board exposes 10 SATA 6Gb/s ports. Six are native to Intel's Z97 Express PCH, while four attach to a pair of ASMedia ASM1061 controllers. One port connects to an eSATA interface on the rear panel, also.
That SATA Express connector is shared with two SATA ports and the M.2 socket. As you'll see, Intel's drive to push innovation in the storage space on mainstream core logic causes some of the same traffic jams we're accustomed to describing on the graphics side (shared PCI Express lanes and all of that).
Surprisingly, perhaps, even though SATA Express is brand new, that's not the big feature here. Rather, it's the Ultra M.2 x4 socket. Wired not through the PCH (like the standard M.2 interface on Z97's ports 13 and 14, along with SATA Express), it isn't subject to the same limitations. It instead utilizes four lanes of PCI Express 3.0 siphoned off of the CPU, yielding up to 32 Gb/s of bandwidth. And while you'll never get 4 GB/s out of it, the right SSD could make for a special evening of benchmarking.
And wouldn't you know it? We have Samsung's XP941, an OEM-oriented drive, for testing. It uses four PCI Express lanes and comes equipped with the hardware to match. That'll allow us to determine if Intel's Z97 Express and ASRock's Z97 Extreme6 come together to make storage dreams come true.