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NVMe technology is but a first step toward bigger things

NVMe is an inevitable move forward for flash technology that begins the transition to storage-class memory and will lead to even more significant storage advances.

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Storage magazine: The AFA market faces unprecedented and rapid commoditization

Nonvolatile memory express is probably on your radar, whether you're already using or considering buying flash storage. If you're talking to a storage array vendor, you're almost certainly hearing all about the new host controller interface and storage protocol.

As vendors will tell you, nonvolatile memory express is an inevitable step in enterprise flash. They will also tell you their NVMe products provide the best performance and lowest latency, without disrupting the way you work. The part about performance and latency is true. NVMe's bandwidth and improved queuing make NVMe SSDs better performers than the SAS SSDs commonly used today. As far as which vendor's NVMe product is the best, that has little to do with NVMe itself, just as you don't generally judge flash arrays by comparing vendors' drives.

NVMe technology is part of an evolving flash world, a step toward much more significant advances. You should look at NVMe as the beginning of a transition to storage-class memory (SCM). Switching to NVMe drives makes for a relatively easy transition, and you will get a performance boost, although SAS SSDs meet the performance requirements of the vast majority of applications.

Looking past NVMe technology

It's hard to look at NVMe without considering other new technologies that will follow. The most obvious link is to NVMe over Fabrics, but SCM technologies, such as Intel's 3D XPoint Optane and Samsung's Z-NAND media, should also be considered.

We already see NVMe technology in servers, and it will eventually be common in storage arrays, hyper-converged appliances and other forms of software-defined storage. For all storage array vendors' talk about NVMe, few array options are available with it yet. Those will come soon, but, meanwhile, you should plan your next steps carefully. As with many new technologies, it will take time for applications to support NVMe's increased performance. Consider what your storage tiers will look like when SCM, dynamic RAM and various types of SSDs become storage options along with old-fashioned hard drives.

NVMe is part of an evolving flash world, a step toward much more significant advances.

NVMe will also change the vendor landscape. Just as the arrival of enterprise flash brought new vendors, such as Fusion-io, Kaminario, NetApp SolidFire, Nimbus Data, Pure Storage and Violin Systems, into play, there's a new batch of startups looking to ride NVMe into your data center. These include Apeiron Data Systems, E8 Storage, Excelero, Exten Technologies (formerly Mangstor), Pavilion Data Systems, StorOne and Vexata. One or more of these startups may come up with a better storage system than your current array vendor.

Of course, established vendors are also staking their short-term futures on NVMe technology. As with all-flash arrays, where only Pure cracked the big time as an independent vendor, most of the startups won't make it. But you can bet Dell EMC, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, IBM, NetApp and Pure -- now part of the establishment -- will still be standing when the NVMe dust clears.

Key questions to ask

When you talk about NVMe with startups or established vendors, you must ask about their long-term strategies. Look past your next array, as it will probably include few changes beyond coming equipped with NVMe SSDs instead of SAS SSDs. Ask vendors the following questions:

  • What do you mean by NVMe-ready? Is this merely replacing SAS SSDs with NVMe SSDs, or did you make other architecture or management changes?
  • What is your plan for NVMe over Fabrics? Which fabrics will you support, and how will they affect the applications I'm running now or may run in the future?
  • What is your SCM roadmap? How do you view future advances, such as 3D XPoint, Z-NAND and other emerging technologies, and how can I prepare for them?

The answers to these questions will help position you and your business to make good long-term choices when it comes to NVMe.

Next Steps

To be ready for the coming NVMe technology wave, I also recommend reading the following:

This was last published in May 2018

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