PCIe: The New Storage Tier or the New Storage Network?

Arthur Cole
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Five Data Storage Predictions for 2012

New networking infrastructure continues to see rapid development around Flash-based solid-state storage, adding the final elements to a fully self-contained storage layer residing on top of, or even in place of, SAN and NAS architectures.

Much of the activity is centered around the PCIe interface, which makes sense considering the vast majority of SSD models on the market utilizing PCIe to access their target markets: laptops and tablets. But PCIe also makes a nifty short-hop storage networking solution for the enterprise as they increasingly deploy on-board and on-server Flash solutions that are steadily increasing the capacity levels.

One thing lacking, however, is commonality among PCIe platforms. The interface may be standardized, but there are still differences when it comes to optimization and client/enterprise interoperability. The Non-Volatile Memory Express (NVMe) Consortium, backed by Dell, EMC, Intel, Oracle and others, is aiming to standardize its interface across the PCIe universe. The group recently tapped the University of New Hampshire's InterOperability Laboratory (UNH-IOL) as a test suite for NVMe-compliant software and systems.

At the device level, Micron just introduced a hot-swappable 2.5-inch card with a PCIe interface, which provides a front-end storage solution for quick and easy service and scalability. The card has yet to be named, although it is built on the P320h model featuring a customized controller and support for streaming video applications and virtual networking. The drive will make its first appearance in Dell's new PowerEdge machines.

As can be expected, HPC platforms are eager to put storage closer to server resources, with PCIe making an ideal interface. Colfax International recently tapped OCZ Technology to provide its Z-Drive R4 for a new line of Intel E5 2600 "Sandy Bridge" machines. The solution is aimed at improving application performance by offloading data from CPU and memory resources. The CX2230i-X5 server holds up to seven R4 drives, offering up to 20 GBps throughput and 22.4 TB total capacity.

Even that amount of storage may seem quaint for PCIe infrastructure before too long. OCZ is gearing up to the release of the R5 platform, the Kilimanjaro, which will sport a PCIe Gen 3x16 interface with either MLC, eMLC or SLC designs capable of a top capacity of 12 TB and 7 GBps throughput. The drive is targeted at enterprise-class applications like OLTP database processing, Web service and collaboration.

The looming question in all this is whether PCIe will find its niche as a high-speed storage tier or as a full-fledged storage networking architecture in its own right. Clearly, those with hefty investments in existing SAN and NAS infrastructure see it as another tier. But there is an entirely new generation of cloud providers and hungry tech startups that are anxious to build low-cost but highly efficient storage from the ground up. And if PCIe provides high throughput, high capacity and easy deployment, will there be any need to build a traditional SAN/NAS architecture at all?

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