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2.5" PCIe SSDs

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor, StorageSearch.com - May 21, 2012

A new family is planning to move into the enterprise end of SSD street - removable 2.5" SSDs which have a PCIe interface.

The market for 2.5" SSDs which have a PCIe interface marks the soon to be crowded intersection point of 3 different SSD market strands.
  • the next step in the SATA-IO (ORG) performance roadmap for SATA 3 SSDs in the form of SATA express (with 2 lanes of gen2 PCIe) instead of a 12Gbps scaling of Serial ATA - which option was rejected in 2011 as not offering a competitively viable standard.
  • a virgin market opportunity for vendors who already have IP assets in the crowded enterprise PCIe SSD market and who want to stretch those assets into new application areas for removable PCIe SSDs.

    One way to think about the scale of the market opportunity is this.

    Suppose you're in the controller business and already have a PCIe SSD IP which sells well in enterprise server slots.

    In classical SAN architecture - for every SSD you sell which plugs into a server slot - there's a lot more drive slots out there in the storage racks.

    OK the reality is that - in competition with the SAN view of the enterprise - we now also have the scalable storage as software - or cloud types of architecture too.

    But whatever may happen in the end - the thing which will undoubtedly happen next - is that the number of potential SSD slots in SAN storage racks is a bigger number (10x) and will grow faster than the SSD slots in new servers.
  • an alternative upwards (or sideways migration route) for systems designers who need a next step after 12Gbps SAS SSDs.
The only complicating factors which are going to slow down the race to get products into the 2.5" PCIe SSD market are detailed marketing decisions about whether to ship vanilla SSDs or use the new form factor as a way to leverage new features which users will specifically value or expect too see in this particular module form factor - due to the cultural heritage and experience with earlier types of 2.5" SSDs. They relate to:-
  • SSD software:- the specific type of virtuualization. The 2.5" paradigm supports hot swap and upgrades. Ideally the software should support almost instant benefits if users decide to plug in new 2.5" SSDs.
  • standards: - what language will the 2.5" PCIe SSDs speak? PCIe is a neutral physical connection. The emerging SCSI Express standard is just one of many possibilities. Others include standard storage networks such as SAN, iSCSI etc.
  • fault tolerance:- what type of architecture will underpin the 2.5" PCIe SSD rack? Possibilities range from standard RAID like systems upto proprietary schemes which can provide much better resilience at greater efficiency.
  • pricing strategy:- the new form factor will open up new application slots - some of which will be positioned above those of existing 2.5" SAS SSDs. But less obviously by negating the essential need for on-board controllers some of the new SSDs could be positioned in the cost gap between high end enterprise SATA SSDs and fast-enough SAS SSDs too (see more below).

How will the 2.5" PCIe SSD market affect the business of current PCIe SSD companies?

I've spoken to a representative sample of enterprise SSD companies about the new form factor. This includes companies which currently make PCIe SSDs and also some who don't.

The general view is that 2.5" PCIe SSDs represent additional new business - compared to installing PCIe SSD cards and multi-card modules into server slots.

How will 2.5" PCIe SSDs impact the business of SAS SSD makers?

In the long term I think it will reduce the market size for SAS SSDs because the new types of SSDs will provide faster throughput and lower latency - and the possibility of offering fast-enough SSDs at lower cost too.

However SAS SSDs work here and now - and it could take another year or so for 2.5" PCIe SSDs to get firmly established in the market.

My guess is that initially some vendors of 2.5" PCIe SSDs will position their products as options which sit above the performance capabilities of their SAS SSD product lines.

But other options are possible too. For example a 2.5" PCIe SSD - which offloads its flash controller functions to the host server (like Fusion-io's products) could deliver lower power consumption and higher capacity than traditional SAS SSDs - and at lower cost. In the non-offfloaded flash management design (which other vendors may also introduce too) - the new 2.5" PCIe SSDs could be designed at a lower cost than SAS SSDs (because they don't need the controller).

That's one of the reasons that SAS SSD makers are looking at this market too.

Why do we need yet another type of SSD component in the enterprise?

The simple answer is that some users prefer the unit of upgrade or fault replacement to be a drive instead of a whole rack.

And although it's possible to upgrade or replace PCIe SSDs at the card level - it's more convenient to do so at the module level.

The new 2.5" PCIe SSDs will affect the variety of options seen inside fast SSD racks. They have been a long time coming and are already included in my earlier published models about SSD market silos.

As I said above - there will soon be more than 20 companies in this market - and the new products will be the showcases for new configuation possibilities.

Companies which have already publicly announced such products and demonstrated prototypes, or are shipping them include:- OCZ, Micron, Fusion-io and Samsung.


...Later updates:- September 2012

The subject of 2.5" PCIe SSDs and related standards such as NVMe came up in several papers and blogs centered on the Flash Memory Summit (August 2012).

Here are some links and notes.
  • "2 competing enterprise initiatives have emerged in the attempt to align the industry around PCIe based SSDs - SCSI express (led by HP) and NVMe (led by Intel and Dell). While a 3rd standard - SATA express - is aimed at clients and hybrids. In the 2.5" drive size - a multi-function bay can support both SAS and PCIe SSDs with the same SFF-8639 connector" - HGST paper - enterprise interface trends (pdf)
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