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Five NVMe-oF questions you've been dying to ask

The NVMe over Fabrics specification is growing in popularity, thanks to its ability to reduce latency and increase performance. But is it just a fad or here to stay?

Is NVM Express over Fabrics destined to become a fixture in storage or a footnote? The world of data storage technology...

is always evolving, with products being developed to meet ever-changing needs. Some trends take off, while others become stepping stones to more significant storage technologies.

NVMe-oF was designed to transfer nonvolatile memory express-based commands over a network and has caused quite a bit of buzz in recent years. But is it here to stay? With the rise of SSDs, it makes sense that a storage protocol designed with that technology in mind should thrive in the storage market. As an alternative to the SCSI protocol, NVMe is designed for faster, higher-performance storage media rather than hard disks.

It's widely believed in the storage world that NVMe SSDs will one day supplant SATA and SAS-based SSDs as the default flash media. Does the extension over fabrics have the same certain future? What's the difference between NVMe and NVMe-oF anyway? And is it even available?

Below, we answer those questions and others you may have about NVMe over Fabrics technology.

How is it different?

Rather than a separate product entirely, NVMe over Fabrics should be considered the natural next step for NVMe technology. Extending over Fabrics means integrating NVMe technology into storage networks, such as Ethernet and Fibre Channel. This process carries the NVMe commands over longer distances and is a popular NVMe deployment option for organizations looking to use NVMe in large, scale-out environments.

NVMe over Fabrics can address high-performance requirements and maximizes the value of expensive flash storage by extending it to an organization's storage network. There are areas of concern, such as manageability and the skills required of the team running the network, but the advantages are clear.

Where is it headed?

Prior to becoming the standard protocol for PCs, NVMe was an exciting fix for updated flash drives that required higher performance. The NVMe protocol maintains the high level of I/O operations for flash drives over a network that a PCI Express connection provides when directly attached to a PC.

As NVMe technology evolved, an extension to fabrics was the logical next step to address changing performance needs. The ability of an NVMe fabric grid to connect and access all modules in a storage cluster makes it a powerful, versatile aspect of NVMe storage that should keep NVMe-oF technology around for a while.

What problems does it solve?

NVMe technology was developed to address weaknesses in the iSCSI protocol, which was developed with hard disks in mind. Because combining SCSI with speedy flash storage often resulted in bottlenecks, NVMe was developed. NVMe-oF goes a step further than NVMe, correcting latency and performance problems associated with SCSI and providing stronger connectivity over a larger network.

NVMe over Fabrics can be used with either remote direct memory access (RDMA) or Fibre Channel. With RDMA, NVMe-oF can provide lower latency combined with higher data transfer speeds. When used with Fibre Channel, NVMe over Fabrics can be implemented with the technology already in place at an organization with just a simple switch upgrade.

What does it mean for storage?

So, what does the extension of NVMe to Fabrics mean for the storage industry? Just as flash technology transformed storage, NVMe-oF is set to cause a stir. To fully take advantage of the benefits of NVMe over Fabrics, shared storage architectures must change. Storage architecture vendors will need to adjust their offerings, taking into account performance optimization and switching from legacy protocols to the updated NVMe protocols. While vendors of more flexible software-defined storage may have an easier time incorporating these changes, those in the hyper-converged infrastructure business could also see benefits from embracing the technology.

In addition, NVMe over Fabrics stands out as an example of modern innovation in storage, and a sign that the market will continue to develop in the coming years.

Is NVMe-oF ready for widespread adoption?

As with any major IT development, the biggest question here is whether widespread adoption of the technology is on the horizon. While it was developed with flash storage in mind, NVMe technology isn't designed exclusively for flash, which should keep it up to date and adaptable as time goes by.

Slowly but surely, vendors in the storage space are beginning to offer NVMe over Fabrics-compliant products. IBM recently committed to providing NVMe-oF support for its flash storage products, and Micron Technology sees big things ahead in the world of NVMe over Fabrics, including it in the company's SolidScale architecture. While the technology may not be widely used yet, the rise of NVMe over Fabrics in the market seems all but inevitable.

This was last published in May 2018

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