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Defining NVMe - Hands-on testing with the 1.6TB Intel P3700 SSD

By: Paul Alcorn | PCIe SSDs in IT/Datacenter | Posted: Jun 24, 2014 3:54 pm

Final Thoughts




NVMe has garnered industry-wide support and is speeding its way into a datacenter near you. Many are not aware just how far NVMe has already spread behind the scenes since the release of the NVMe 1.0 specification back in 2011.


PMC-Sierra is already supplying controllers to two of the largest datacenter customers in the world so they can build their own SSDs. Even though PMC cannot name them directly, it isn't hard to speculate which two entities have the largest datacenters in the world. This build-it-yourself philosophy lines up perfectly to the Open Compute initiative, and we all know the players in that space. PMC is publicly supplying Princeton controllers to EMC for their own internally developed products. These three projects are already deep in internal qual cycles, and the new approach of build-it-yourself SSDs has the ability to upend the current model for hyperscale datacenter flash deployments. NVMe standardization, with its focus on ease-of-deployment, enables much of this progress.


Samsung already has units shipping, and SanDisk, EMC, HGST, LSI, Seagate, and Micron are all already well underway in their NVMe initiatives. A quick look at the University of New Hampshire's InterOperability Laboratory (UNH-IOL) page reveals a list of companies that have passed conformance and interoperability testing for NVMe 1.0 and 1.1 designs, and we expect that list to grow quickly.


Intel is the first to market with a wide range of both PCIe and 2.5" NVMe SSDs for the retail space, hence our testing with the Intel P3700 for this article. Intel is in a unique situation among the companies developing NVMe; they actually have the ability to push NVMe-capable slots onto motherboards and chipsets. There is already a growing interest in M.2 slots for ultra-dense server designs, and Intel is the locomotive that pulls the chipset train along the track.


One of the only challenges facing NVMe is PCIe lane limitations. At first glance, 80 lanes for a dual socket server would seem to be adequate for even the most extreme storage requirements. It is important to remember the other devices sharing the bus as well; high performance 40Gbe networking cards and other PCIe devices typically accompany high performance flash deployments.


Intel's dominance in the server CPU market places them in the unique position to address lane limitations with future CPUs and chipsets. If deemed necessary they could simply increase the number of lanes. They also have some control over the PCIe 4.0 expansion timeline, which could be a more efficient approach to addressing PCIe lane limitations.


NVMe's optimized register interface and command set minimizes the number of CPU clocks per I/O and delivers higher performance and lower latency to the end-user. Our testing confirmed the Intel P3700 features efficient CPU utilization when servicing I/O, and its interrupt coalescence also leads the pack in most tests. It is hard to do a better job of illustrating the superior latency performance of NVMe than our IOPS v Latency tests. The difference between NVMe latency and other solutions is night and day.


The initial move to the faster PCIe bus for SSDs was almost intuitive. Placing NAND closer to the CPU delivered tangible performance benefits in relation to existing interconnects, but the need to rethink and design a new protocol free of legacy baggage was necessary to unlock the performance of the PCIe bus.


Intel founded the Non Volatile Memory Express Workgroup in 2009 to power the future of storage. The result is a widely accepted standard that delivers 1/5th the latency of previous protocols, and scales to address devices with 1000x the speed of today's flash-based storage products. NVMe is a forward-thinking protocol that will be around for at least another decade.


The aging AHCI interface debuted in 2004, and like previous interfaces before it, it will succumb to the forward march of progress. It is only a matter of time until NVMe-compatible connections replace AHCI. SCSI Express is a projected contender in the protocol race, but NVMe is widely accepted by a broad consortium of industry leaders and it is hard to foresee SCSI Express mustering a challenge with NVMe already on the market.


For now, our bet is on NVMe powering the future of non-volatile memory. Keep your eyes on the pages here at TweakTown for our full product evaluation of the 1.6 TB Intel P3700, followed shortly with an article exploring four of the 1.6TB P3700's in various RAID configurations.

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