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NVMe paves the way for SSDs in the enterprise

Posted: 11 Dec 2012 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:solid state drives? host bus adaptors? non-volatile memory express?

PCI express (PCIe) solid state drives (SSDs) provide significant performance benefits in enterprise applications versus traditional hard disc drives (HDDs), as well as SSDs with a legacy storage interface. By realising the full performance potential of flash memory, PCIe SSDs accelerate I/O-intensive enterprise applications, such as data mining, online transaction processing (OLTP), and financial transaction processing. The strong need for high-performance PCIe SSDs is underlined by the growing performance gap between processors and storage sub-systems. Until recently, however, the lack of a host control interface standard has inhibited the widespread adoption of PCIe SSDs. Existing solutions have required proprietary software drivers that complicate OEM qualification, inhibiting broad adoption of PCIe SSDs.

With the emergence of non-volatile memory express (NVMe), a scalable host controller interface specifically developed for PCIe SSDs, and a supporting ecosystem plus dedicated devices such as NVMe programmable flash controller chips, the potential of PCIe SSDs for enterprise computing applications can be fully realised. Device programmability will allow SSD suppliers to lead an industry transition to NVMe PCIe SSDs while still being able to differentiate products through their own firmware. Server and storage OEMs meanwhile, will benefit through dramatically improved performance and greatly simplified and expedited qualification processes.

PCIe in enterprise computing
PCI Express has become the preferred interface standard for many applications, including SSD-based enterprise storage. PCIe performance plus scalability and effective power management are what attract designers and system architects to the interface standard. PCIe offers scalable port width with a throughput that delivers a high level of input/output operations per second (4 GB/s for PCIe x4 Gen3). By allowing direct connection to the CPU and therefore eliminating the need for host bus adaptors (HBAs), PCIe delivers low latency and reduced system cost and power.

PCIe SSD adoption in enterprise applications is still at relatively low levels. The inherent benefits of SSD storage performance mean the potential market is hugely significant; the emergence of the NVMe host control interface standard with its associated benefits is widely expected to help unlock the potential for enterprise PCIe SSDs and drive growth in the market. As an indicator of this, Gartner expects the market for PCIe enterprise SSDs to quadruple to nearly 3.5 million units between 2012 and 2015.1

NVMe is an optimised, high performance, scalable host controller interface with a streamlined register interface and command set designed for enterprise and client systems that use PCI Express SSDs. NVMe was developed to reduce latency and provide faster performance with support for security and end-to-end data protection. The standard provides a flexible architecture for enterprise and client platforms.

NVMe 1.0 was published in March 2011. The host control interface standard was defined and developed by an industry consortium comprising over 80 members who brought considerable expertise to the table. The NVMe promoter group includes IDT as well as other industry players such as Dell, EMC, Netapp, Cisco, Oracle, Intel, STEC, Samsung, Micron, Sandisk, Marvell, and LSI.

NVM express in the enterprise
In the enterprise environment, NVMe provides the performance to meet the needs of the latest high performance computing environments in data centres. Able to support massive parallelism, it offers an optimised register interface and a high degree of scalability, meaning it is ready to meet future as well as current storage needs.

Architected for performance, NVMe provides the capabilities to meet the demands of cloud computing, internet portal data centres, and other high-performance computing environments. For caching or across multiple drives, the benefits include:

???Performance across multiple cores to quickly access critical data
???An optimised register interface and command set to deliver fewer clocks[clock cycles?] per I/O
???Scalability with headroom for current and future NVM performance
???End-to-end data protection capabilities and support for standard security protocols, such as Trusted Computing Group
???Broad ecosystem support with products available in the second half of 2012
For enterprise customers looking to gain a competitive advantage from their storage solution, NVMe is the next generation storage interface optimised for performance.

Figure: Chart comparing NVM Express (NVMe) with Leadership Enterprise PCIe SSDs shows NVMe as a more efficient soluton in terms of clocks per I/O. Note: in this test, NVMe used DRAM to push protocol to limits, while Leadership Enterprise PCIe SSD utilises NAND, making runtime comparisons inappropriate.2

Supporting devices and strong ecosystem
Far from being a risky implementation for system designers, NVMe is growing up fast. Developed and backed by the consortium, the standard satisfied rigorous scrutiny and evaluation before its publication. A strong ecosystem has already developed to speed and aid implementation of reliable high-performance NVMe solutions, including NVMe enterprise flash memory controllers that support SSD suppliers in transitioning to high-throughput, low-latency designs. IDT, Intel, and LSI have developed standards-based NVMe software drivers, and test and measurement specialists such as LeCroy and Agilent offer NVMe protocol analysers.

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