Apr 25 2023

What Is NVMe and How Does It Improve on Solid-State Drive Technology?

By providing a more direct connection with a computer’s motherboard, non-volatile memory express technology is an ideal new standard for all sorts of enterprise workloads.

Over the past few years, storage technology has slowly transitioned to non-volatile memory express technology, and for good reason. Providing exceptional speed in a compact form — the most popular form of NVMe is roughly the size of a stick of gum — NVMe delivers the highest throughput and quickest response times yet for all sorts of enterprise workloads. That’s part of why they’re broadly being implemented by Dell, IBM, HPE and other technology giants.

Still, while NVMe drives are included with most laptops and many desktops and are making inroads into the server room, they aren’t entirely the norm yet. It’s just as easy to buy a device featuring a serial advanced technology attachment (SATA) drive as it is to buy one with an NVMe drive. So, when it comes to choosing which technology to invest in, it’s important to have a basic understanding of NVMe and its storage interconnectivity capabilities.

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What Is NVMe?

Introduced by the NVM Express group in 2011, NVMe is now a standard hardware interface for solid-state drives (SSDs) that uses the peripheral component interconnect express (PCIe) bus, a switched architecture connecting peripheral devices such as storage drives and graphics cards. The “non-volatile” in NVMe refers to the fact that the storage doesn’t get erased when the computer reboots, while the “express” refers to how the storage data travels across the Peripheral Component Interconnect Express PCIe on the computer’s motherboard.

By providing a more direct connection with a computer’s motherboard than SATA and other storage technologies, NVMe unlocks tremendous bandwidth potential for storage devices, making it an effective and ideal new standard for all types of enterprise workloads.

NVMe Defined

SSDs have long been the gold standard of fast storage mediums. NVMe isn’t a replacement for them; it’s a technology that helps SSDs run even faster and with increased efficiency, performance and operability across a broad range of systems via the PCIe bus it uses.

When it comes to storage technology, NVMe is a relatively newer interface that was created solely for use in SSDs, as opposed to hard disk drives (HDDs) with flash technology. It is designed to communicate directly with a system’s CPU, eliminating the need for a tech middleman. It is also designed specifically to maximize the potential of the parallel and low-latency data paths inherent in flash-based storage devices. In fact, NVMe can hold and send roughly 64,000 commands per queue without any hiccups, far more than the respective 254 and 32 commands per queue that Legacy SAS and SATA can support.

Overall, designed for high performance and non-volatile storage media, NVMe is the only storage protocol that helps SSDs achieve maximum throughput. It’s also a highly scalable protocol that can be extended to work with persistent memory technologies, including those not yet available on the market. 

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What Are the Benefits of NVMe for Data Storage?

NVMe has become mainstream thanks to its ability to significantly improve the speed and performance of data storage. But that’s not because NVMe is faster at operating in the same way other protocols do; it’s because NVMe operates entirely differently. NVMe is a unique hardware interface with unique speed and performance-improving benefits, including:

  • Faster read and write speeds. By using a parallel interface that allows for speedier communication between the SSD and CPU, NVMe results in faster read and write speeds. This is particularly helpful for applications with a heavy reliance on data access.
  • Lower latency. NVMe’s faster read and write speeds lend it to lower latency and higher throughput, resulting in faster data access and better system responsiveness.
  • High scalability. With its internal parallelism and efficient use of CPU cores, NVMe makes it easier to scale storage systems as needed, a crucial element to consider when evaluating which storage technology to use for the enterprise workloads of any business.
  • Lower power consumption. NVMe SSDs use semiconductor modules to store and access data, making them far more power-efficient and eco-friendly than SATA SSDs and traditional HDDs. For comparison, the average power consumed by an active NVMe SSD is just 0.08 watts, while that of an in-use SATA SSD is 0.279W. Just as notable, the average NVMe on standby used just 0.0032W, far less than the 0.195W consumed by the average standby SATA.
  • High reliability. Traditional HDDs have moving parts, the deterioration of which is inevitable. NVMe SSDs don’t have any moving parts, so they tend to have significantly fewer system crashes and data losses. In fact, unlike RAM or DRAM memory storage, NVMe interfaces retain stored data even when the power is cut.
  • High compatibility. Not every device is compatible with NVMe SSDs, but many are. A lot of NVMe SSDs, like 2 NVMe SSDs, are backward- and forward-compatible thanks to their PCIe connection protocol. And NVMe SSDS like U.2 SSDs are hot and pluggable, making it easy for admins to upgrade their enterprise servers since they’re compatible with multiple PCIe slots and are backward-compatible with HDDs.

NVMe’s benefits make the hardware interface an ideal technology for a wide range of business applications, from high-performance computing to data centers and cloud storage. That’s why it’s been overtaking SATA as the standard for high-functioning storage technology.

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NVME vs. SATA: What Are the Differences?

At their cores, NVMe and SATA are both protocols used for connecting storage devices to a computer. But that’s where their similarities end. NVMe and SATA have some key differences in design and performance, including:

  • SATA and NVMe are both fast. NVMe can theoretically transfer data at up to 64,000 megabytes per second with PCIe, 4.0 compared with the 600MBps limit of SATA III.
  • NVMe SSDs allow for over 64,000 command queues, each of which can have over 64,000 commands per queue. SATA-based SSDs, on the other hand, are limited to 32 commands per queue.
  • Since NVMe eliminates the intermediating SATA HBA layer and allows SSDs to communicate with the CPU directly, it opens channels for performance improvements that SATA can’t. For perspective, the SATA III bus has a performance limit of 550MBps of throughput after overhead. Conversely, a single PCIe 3.0 lane can offer1gigabyte per second of throughput, and a single PCIe 4.0 lane can offer 2GBps.
  • NVMe SSDs use a smaller form factor than SATA SSDs, meaning they allow for more storage in the same amount of space. This is especially useful for ultrabooks, tablets and other small form factor devices that SATA SSDs and traditional HDDs may be too large to be used in.
  • NVMe SSDs and SATA SSDs require a motherboard with an NVMe and SATA connector, respectively. And while some devices have motherboards with both connectors, many don’t. Because of this, NVMe may not be compatible with older systems, just as SATA may not be compatible with some newer systems.
  • Though prices continue to go down in accordance with increased production, NVMe SSDs tend to be more expensive than SATA SSDs.

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Overall, the differences in NVMe and SATA stem from their design: NVMe is specifically tailored for SSDs, while SATA isn’t. In essence, SSDs are the race car to traditional HDDs’ minivan, and NVMe is the racetrack to SATA’s common road: Any car can try driving on any road, but a race car on a racetrack can realize a potential it could not on a common road, and that no minivan could realize on any road.

What Are NVMe’s Use Cases?

Helping speed up and improve the efficiency of all storage matters, NVMe has a lot of business-specific use cases, including high-performance computing environments — scientific research and financial modeling are two examples — where speedy data access is critical. It’s also being used in data centers to improve the cross-departmental performance of enterprise storage systems, providing employees with faster access to data and heightened system responsiveness.

Beyond the more tried-and-true traditional storage situations, NVMe is also able to help prepare business networks to handle artificial intelligence applications. After all, AI, machine learning and neural networks all require high amounts of storage — so much that performance can be slowed and crashes could result without the right storage protocol in place.

In the end, between real-time customer interactions, video editing, virtualization environments and more, NVMe can be used in any storage-related situation. By helping bolster your system’s storage capabilities, the SSD hardware interface will help your team execute their given tasks in a faster, more efficient manner.

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