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OCZ, Lite-On show off new enterprise M.2 SSDs at CES

New enterprise M.2 SSDs from OCZ, Lite-On appeal to hyperscale companies and general enterprise IT for booting servers, caching and storing primary data.

OCZ Storage Solutions Inc. and Lite-On Technology Corp. this week demonstrated new enterprise M.2 solid-state drives (SSDs) that can store up to 1 TB of data in a form factor that is roughly the size of a piece of chewing gum.

OCZ, a wholly owned subsidiary of Toshiba Corp., and Lite-On's storage strategic business group took the occasion of the Consumer Electronics Show and the Storage Visions Conference this week in Las Vegas to show off consumer and enterprise flash technologies they expect to ship this year.

The high-performance M.2 SSDs that OCZ and Lite-On demonstrated could ultimately see enterprise use for booting servers, caching and storing primary data. The small-form factor, high density and low power consumption appeal in particular to hyperscale companies such as Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft that need to economically store huge amounts of data. The M.2 SSDs can speed the boot process and data response times while also saving space and reducing power requirements.

OCZ this week showcased its new JetExpress SSD controller in the M.2 form factor, but the company also plans to support additional form factors, including 2.5-inch SATA and Small Form Factor 8639, which can enable PCI Express (PCIe) speeds in a 2.5-inch SSD. The JetExpress silicon supports the PCI Express interface with the nonvolatile memory express (NVMe) protocol and the SATA interface with the advanced host controller interface (AHCI) protocol.

JetExpress controller servicing mostly enterprise markets

Daryl Lang, chief technology officer at OCZ, said the JetExpress controller is designed to service the enterprise and consumer markets, but so far, 80% of the company's development efforts have focused on the enterprise space in response to customer demand. Lang said the sweet spot is the hyperscale data center as opposed to traditional enterprise.

Lang said the company worked with several lead customers, including hyperscale companies and an enterprise OEM, to define the features and requirements for the enterprise-grade M.2 module. The enterprise M.2 SSD that OCZ demonstrated this week is 110 mm long, as opposed to the typical client M.2 SSD that is 60 or 80 mm in length, to accommodate the greater density and additional features that the lead customers requested, Lang said. He noted that the M.2 specification allows for varying lengths.

OCZ expects to sample the enterprise M.2 SSDs to lead customers in the second quarter and expects general availability in the second half of the year, according to Lang. He said pricing has yet to be determined, but he estimated the M.2 SSD cost will be more expensive than an SATA SSD but less costly than a SAS SSD.

Lang said OCZ will sell server-grade SSDs with the JetExpress controllers to OEMs, hyperscale customers and enterprise end users. On the enterprise side, OCZ expects to use the JetExpress technology in its Mako enterprise M.2 line, Intrepid enterprise SATA line and enterprise 2.5-inch and add-in cards or Z-Drive family, according to Lang.

The initial M.2 SSD, with enterprise multilevel cell flash, will be the Mako 1000, according to Lang. The M.2 SSDs that OCZ demonstrated this week with the JetExpress SSD controllers are native NVMe and PCI Generation 3 with four lanes of bandwidth capability. Lang said each generation of PCIe has roughly doubled the performance on a per-lane basis, so PCIe Gen2x8 is roughly equivalent in bandwidth to PCIe Gen3x4.

"Essentially, we're using four lanes in order to have a wide pipe to run performance on," said Lang.

The compact enterprise-grade M.2 SSDs that Lite-On showcased this week are PCI Gen2x4 AHCI rather than NVMe. Jeffery Chang, a technical product manager at Lite-On, said faster NVMe-based PCIe Gen3x4 SSDs are on the roadmap for the second half of this year.

"NVMe is better than AHCI because it took out a lot of the overhead with regard to protocol. AHCI is still used for hard drives. A RAID host bus adapter would use that for example," said Chang. "NVMe is completely designed for nonvolatile flash."

PCIe NVMe cards offer 30% boost in performance with reduced overhead

Chang said PCIe NVMe cards can easily enjoy a 20% to 30% boost in performance with the reduced overhead. He said Lite-On's PCIe NVMe SSDs will support additional form factors beyond M.2, including 2.5-inch drives.

In the meantime, Lite-On offers capacity options of 480 GB and 960 GB with its new enterprise-grade EP1 Series M.2 SSDs, which feature end-to-end data protection, power-loss protection and high endurance. Lite-On wrote the firmware and used Marvell controllers and Toshiba's 19nm NAND flash for the EP1 Series SSDs. The company worked closely on the M.2 SSDs with Microsoft, which promoted the M.2 form factor through the Open Compute Project, according to Chang.

Lite-On expects to make available samples of its EP1 M.2 SSDs by the end of February, with production to follow in March and the second quarter, according to Christine Hsing, OEM global marketing manager at Lite-On.

Analyst: Enterprise buyers will look to purchase servers with M.2 SSDs

John Chen, a vice president at TrendFocus, a storage market research and consulting firm in Cupertino, Calif., said he expects, at a minimum, standard enterprise system buyers will look to purchase servers with high-performance M.2 SSDs rather than hard-disk drives (HDDs) as a boot device.

But, Chen said the more interesting potential usage is high-density storage within servers or possibly even in all-flash arrays. He added that he foresees the M.2 SSDs used for read-intensive rather than high-transaction workloads.

"You're not going to M.2 suddenly take over all these other [SSD] form factors. It just becomes a growing segment in an increasingly complicated market for PCIe SSDs," said Chen. He added that hyperscale use of M.2 SSDs will drive interest among general enterprise IT organizations.

At last year's Open Compute Summit, Facebook discussed its use of consumer-grade M.2 SSDs to boot Web servers. Matt Corddry, Facebook's director of hardware engineering, said the company examined the total cost of ownership (TCO) associated with booting Web servers. He said the analysis showed SSDs could work, but the high purchase price for enterprise-grade SSDs drove the company to netbook-class M.2 SSDs that offered lower TCO than HDDs.

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