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Seagate demos fast, dense PCIe SSDs that support OCP specs, NVMe

Seagate is demonstrating a new PCI Express (PCIe) flash drive this week at the Open Compute Project (OCP) Summit that it claims meets OCP specifications and delivers throughput of 10 gigabytes per second.

The new full-height, half-length PCIe add-in card – which Seagate expects to ship this summer – bundles multiple gum-stick-sized, energy-efficient, consumer-grade M.2 solid-state drives (SSDs). The Seagate PCIe card accommodates 16-lane PCIe slots and supports non-volatile memory express (NVMe).

To comply with OCP specifications, the Seagate SSD had to enable capabilities such as the bifurcation of PCIe lanes at boot-up, out-of-band temperature and performance measurements, and the management of airflow and fan control in out-of-band fashion, according to Tony Afshary, director of marketing for flash products at Seagate.

The OCP is a collaborative community that focuses on redesigning hardware to more efficiently support the increasing demands on IT infrastructure, especially in large data centers with thousands of servers. Facebook has been the primary driver behind the OCP initiative. Other members include Microsoft and Google, which disclosed today that it’s joining the OCP.

“There is an enormous amount of data that is being generated specifically in the public cloud space, but even within enterprises, that requires you to be innovative and build data centers differently. That’s what OCP is all about,” Afshary said.

He said Facebook was influential in the design of Seagate’s new PCIe add-in card, both with the NVMe and with the aggregation of M.2 flash form factor cards inside an OCP server. Small-form-factor M.2 SSDs were originally designed for power-constrained devices, such as laptops and tablets, and later saw use in the SATA form factor to speed the boot process in servers.

Afshary predicted that NVMe-based M.2 SSDs will move into different tiers of storage and compute. Enterprises often use flash drives with databases for primary storage, but Afshary said innovative cloud companies are considering flash even for cold storage.

In an August 2013 presentation at the Flash Memory Summit, Jason Taylor, now the OCP’s president and chairman and Facebook’s VP of infrastructure, raised the prospect of using SSDs for cold storage. Taylor suggested that solid-state technology could provide high-density storage and longer hardware lifespan at a reasonable cost. He challenged the industry to “make the worst flash possible – just make it dense and cheap; long writes, low endurance and lower IOPS/TB are all OK.”

Greg Wong, founder and principal analyst at Forward Insights, said that, with Seagate’s new PCIe add-in cards, the M.2 SSDs enable easy upgrade for capacity purposes.

In addition to the full-height, half-length PCIe add-in card, Seagate is also finalizing a smaller half-length, half-height card that has eight-lane PCIe slots and does not use M.2 SSDs, according to Afshary. Seagate claimed that model can deliver 6.7 GB per second on reads.

Seagate’s new PCIe cards currently support two-dimensional triple-level cell (TLC) and consumer-grade multi-level cell (cMLC) NAND flash. Seagate expects to support 3D TLC and cMLC within a few months, according to Afshary. He declined to disclose pricing but said the cards will be competitive in price with any NVMe-based SSD, regardless of form factor.

The new PCIe cards from Seagate will work in OCP-compliant servers as well as standard servers, all-flash arrays and hybrid storage arrays that also have hard disk drives (HDDs), according to Afshary. Seagate has yet to announce the name or capacity options for its new PCIe add-in cards. Details will be available at the time of the official product launch.

The eight- and 16-lane PCIe add-in cards are currently in testing with multiple large customers. Seagate’s own test system included a Quanta Leopard server with two Intel Broadwell processors and 32 GB of memory, running the CentOS 7 Linux distribution. The bandwidth tests used 256K sequential reads.

Afshary said the new PCIe cards primarily target large-scale cloud providers, but he expects they will also see use with “anyone who wants to have high-density, high-performance, competitively priced SSDs.” Potential use cases include Web applications, weather modeling and statistical trend analysis among enterprises processing data for object storage or in real time, where speed matters, according to Seagate.