Intel revs up enterprise flash drives with PCIe

A line of SSDs will use the high-speed interface and the emerging NVMe specification for high performance, Intel says

Intel took its flash storage for data centers into the fast lane on Tuesday with SSDs that use PCI Express and an emerging host controller interface that could make such components easier to adopt.

The new SSDs (solid-state drives), with sizes ranging from 400GB to 2TB, plug directly into the host bus of a server via PCIe 3.0. That gives them a faster path to the CPU than SATA, the interface inherited from spinning disk drives. But the drives also use NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express), a controller technology that's expected to make PCIe storage easier for vendors to build into their systems.

Growing demand for data, and fast access to it, is driving the need for flash storage and faster paths to it. PCIe flash, which is just starting to emerge in client systems such as Apple's MacBook Air and Mac Pro, is already frequently used in data-center servers. But up until now, SSD makers have had to supply their own drivers. With NVMe, which was developed by a broad industry consortium, chipset and OS vendors will supply the drivers, said Forward Insights analyst Gregory Wong. That should create a broader base of support.

"Standardization will be a catalyst for adoption, as multiple suppliers enter the market and prices fall," Wong said in an email interview.

The NVMe standard was released in 2011 and updated in 2012, but it's just beginning to be adopted. In March, Samsung Electronics said a 1.6TB SSD that it supplies for the Dell PowerEdge R920 server was the first shipping SSD with NVMe. There are now NVMe drivers for Linux and Windows, with ones for VMware, Solaris and UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface) on the way, according to the consortium.

NVMe controller development has been a challenge, and developing an ecosystem takes time, Wong said.

With PCIe and NVMe together, the family of flash drives Intel announced on Tuesday can deliver up to six times the throughput and lower latency than SATA SSDs, according to Intel. Higher speed and lower latency for storage lets a server make better use of its processors and allows the system to grow while maintaining predictable performance, Intel said.

The Intel Solid-State Drive Data Center Family for PCIe will include three lines: the Intel SSD DC P3700 Series for write-intensive applications, the P3600 Series for mixed workloads and the P3500 Series for read-heavy applications. They will use a 2.5-inch form factor. The drives will work in Windows and Linux systems and with the latest Intel server platforms, including the Haswell-based Xeon chips code-named Grantley, set to ship later this year. List prices will start at US$560 and the SSDs will come with a five-year limited warranty.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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