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don't all PCIe SSDs look pretty much the same?

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor - - July 27, 2011

8 out of the top 10 SSD companies in the 2nd quarter of 2011 already sell (or have announced) they will sell PCIe connected SSDs.

That's 4x as many as 2 years ago.

You could easily get the impression that this is going to be a clone market - same host interface - same memory chips -who cares who makes them? Only price matters - right?

That's what I expected would be the case when I started discussing the PCIe SSD market with vendors 4 years ago.

Back then (in 2007) I thought the PCIe SSD market would end up being dominated by low cost vendors based in Asia - because I underestimated how difficult it would be for designers to manage reliability and performance. I expected to see the market converging into a bunch of similar capability PCIe SSDs - differing only in price.

Instead what we're seeing today are tremendous differences in design features such as:-
  • how many PCIe SSDs on the same host? - some designs scale better than others
  • how hard is it to integrate the PCIe SSD with the apps software? - some products now support auto-tiering and are optimized for use as cache - while others can be used flexibly and viewed as either fast storage or cache (or both) depending how the system is configured
  • how much of the host CPU power is needed to make the SSDs work? - this is important if you're trying to fix an already overloaded production server - because you can't afford to lose performance while you tune the hot spots (even if the theoretical end point of the tuning process is faster)
  • how good are the reliability features? - if a given percentage of the raw flash fails some designs will carry on working - others won't
  • what are the field upgrade and fault replacement logistics? - how easy is it to install or remove new modules and starte them running?
  • what's the size? - PCIe SSDs come in tradional cards, multi-slot modules, and also more recently they have been demonstrated in 3.5" and 2.5" form factors (SCSI Express).
Today's market leaders are those with the best SSD controller technology and architecture rather than companies which have access to the lowest cost chip assembly lines. And by "architecture" I don't just mean what's done in silicon.

"Architecture" is what was in the mind of the designer and includes more or less elegant ways of dealing with all the application stresses that the product will encounter during its market life such as balancing the 11 key SSD design symmetries and choosing whether to go with big vs small memory array architecture. Software and API stability play a key part here too.

In this corner of the advancing enterprise SSD tide - the role of solid state storage is starting to fuse into the apps servers - and SSDs play a key role in determining what those particular servers can do. It won't be too long before the SSD count becomes just as important in server marketing as the clock speed of the CPU and the number of cores.

If I try to look ahead at what these PCIe SSDs are going to look like - I don't see a picture of memory chip arrays connected to a processor bus through cloned controllers. Instead I see greater differences emerging than we're seeing today.

The pictures in the ads may look the same - but what they do - and how they do it - are differences we'll have to learn more about.
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If I've learned one useful rule of thumb from having been involved with the PCIe SSD market since it began in 2007 - it's this...

No single PCIe SSD design is optimal for all enterprise applications.

And that's one reason why Seagate's Nytro range appears so confusing at first glance.
Zsolt Kerekes, editor - overview of Seagate's enterprise SSDs (April 2015)
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SSDs are complex devices and there's a lot of mysterious behavior which isn't fully revealed by benchmarks, datasheets and whitepapers.

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