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PCIe ExpressCard 34/54 - your next laptop killer feature

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PCIe ExpressCard Introduction

When you start looking at the feature set for your next laptop purchase, look very closely.  At first glance, many of the new laptops appear to have two pcmcia card slots.  Look more closely because most likely one of those slots is a PCI Express ExpressCard 34/54 slot.

My team is getting ready to refresh the hardware platform we use.  We are moving to a 32bit dual core based laptop.  You might be wondering why we aren’t going to a 64bit based machine.  The answer is simple, money.  We have sponsors that would like us to run the Intel Centrino Duo Mobile chipsets and technology.  Our budget is constrained like everyone else, so sponsorship money helps immensely.

Almost all of the machines we are evaluating include the ExpressCard 54 slot.  I am currently writing this from the Lenovo ThinkPad T60 eval unit I have.  My shopping list includes the Dell Latitude D820, Acer TravelMate 8200, Gateway M465, Toshiba Tecra M5, and the Apple MacBook Pro (grin).  The MacBook and TravelMate 8200 have ExpressCard 34 slots according to the specs.  The Gateway M465 does not have an ExpressCard slot.

What problem are you trying to solve?

The reason I became interested in this technology was to solve an ongoing problem Microsoft presenters face.  Most presenter machines have two serious bottlenecks.  The first issue is the lack of available memory to run virtual machines.  In calendar years 2003–2005, most of the machines we ran had 2gig of memory.  You start carving that up with 500meg VM allocations, and you run into the wall pretty quick.

The second and more serious issue is I/O throughput.  When you are running one or two virtual machines on 2.5” Hitachi 100gig 7200rpm drives, you can get by with decent performance.  We started to see issues with some of our more I/O intensive products in 2005.  When my team started running the Q3 content sessions, we hit the wall on both disk I/O and memory at the same time.  We were running a host OS and four virtual machines.  The virtual machines used six virtual hard drive files and because we had UNDO turned on, an additional six virtual undo disk files get created at execution time.  This generates a tremendous amount of disk activity.

As you know, we always run at least two hard drive spindles in our demos.  This allows us to place the undo disk files on one spindle, and the virtual hard drive source on the other spindle.  This helps relieve the I/O contention burden and we’ve been getting by ok.

So what are you worried about?

History and experience tells me the complexity of our demo environment isn’t going to change.  The TechNet team typically has a client/server model in most of our demos.  Many times we are also demonstrating multiple servers, replication, monitoring, software distribution, etc.  So keeping an eye on the future with Windows Vista, Exchange Server “E12”, 2007 Microsoft Office System, and Windows Server “Longhorn” tells me those bottlenecks will still be taxed.

So how are you going to fix the disk issue?

Integration my friend, integration.  The ExpressCard standard is pretty new so the goal will be to come up with a package of components that will allow use to supply a high speed disk standard for the presenters.  If we can find an ExpressCard to deliver eSATA, then we have a number of disk options.  Probably the hardest component to certify will be the external enclosure.  We need an enclosure that supports SATA 3Gb/s (also known as SATA II).

Today I am using an eSATA solution with my cable HDTV DVR to extend the recording capacity of the DVR.  You can read about all of the components and cables I’m using at http://blogs.technet.com/keithcombs/archive/2006/02/06/418891.aspx.  I don’t think the enclosure I’m using supports the full SATA 3Gb/s spec.  It appears most of the 3.5” eSATA enclosures don’t, so finding one and proving it really works won’t be easy unless someone saves me some time and points me to one.  Hint hint.

Next, we need a nice eSATA ExpressCard.  I plan to test the SIIG cards since they have a solid reputation for quality products.  The card I have my eye on is the SIIG eSATA II ExpressCard RAID.  It looks like a great little card and it’s priced around $70.

And of course we need a hard drive.  As you know, 3.5” hard drives are priced very nicely per Gig when compared to 2.5” laptop drives.  And we could also consider a 10,000 RPM SATA II drive as well.  Here’s a nice 500gig 7200rpm drive from Hitachi.  An of course there’s the bad ass 10,000rpm Western Digital Raptor X.  It’s soo pretty you won’t want to even put an enclosure around it.  It also has a clear lens portal so you can see the hard drive actuator arm in action.  Very very kewl.  WDRaptorXwindowSee the picture at the right or below.

Do you really think presenters want to lug this around?

Probably not.  Backpack or roller bag cubic inches are at a premium for all road warriors.  I recognize that many people won’t want to lug around a 3.5” enclosure, power supply and eSATA cable.  However, if they see that their demos are snappy and they no longer get embarrassed on stage, that might be just enough of an incentive for them to think twice.  Another significant portion of my job is delivering webcasts.  In FY07 (which starts July 1st 2006), it looks like screencasts will also become a significant portion of my job.  In those two cases, I can have the eSATA drive sitting here on my desk.  No hassle at all then.

I thought you were building an iSCSI SAN?

Ah, I see you’ve been reading http://blogs.technet.com/keithcombs/archive/2006/03/26/423149.aspx.  Well, iSCSI isn’t really a portable solution so most likely it will have a place at my home datacenter.  An eSATA solution could hit the road with me. 

Other ExpressCard Options

There are a number of other possibilities for use of the ExpressCard slot.  High Definition tuners, memory expansion, network cards, and IEEE 1394 firewire are just a few of the possibilities.  It would be nice to have a HDTV tuner card that plugs into that slot and allows for Windows Vista recording of HDTV content.  You’ll notice that scenario is also listed in the Apple MacBook Pro technology overview.

Summary

I stumbled across my ThinkPad T60 ExpressCard slot by accident.  I already had my pcmcia smartcard reader in the lower slot and tried to plug my Verizon pcmcia EVDO card into the top slot.  It wouldn’t go.  I looked inside and wondered what the heck this slot was for.  I discovered it earlier this week while in Canada but didn’t have time until now to investigate.  I’m glad I did.  So, make sure you consider this on your next laptop purchase.  You’ll be glad you did!!!

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  • I noticed the different cardslot too during our last eval.  Strange that no one has really mentioned it.  Thank God for search engines.  

    (Betcha you thought I was going to say the G-word.)

    By the way, read this on Bungie yesterday...Halo pinball.  Wouldn't that be a cool game!  "Betcha can't stick it" has been running through my head all day.

  • You can say google.  Google likes acronyms and my blog.  So does MSN search, but so far I get a lot more referrals from google.  We're working on that.

    I want a plasma rifle.