PCIe Flash versus SATA or SAS Based SSD

The impressive results being presented by the new PCIe based server or workstation add-in card flash memory products hitting the market from the likes of FusionIO and others are certainly pushing up the performance envelope of many applications, especially in transactional database applications where the number of user requests is directionally proportional to the storage IOPs or data throughput capabilities.

In just about all cases, general purpose off the shelf PCIe SSD devices all present themselves as a regular storage device to the server e.g. in Windows, they appear as a SCSI like device that can be configured in the disk manager as regular disk volume (e.g. E: or F:). The biggest advantage PCIe SSDs have over standalone SATA or SAS SSD drives is that they can handle greater data traffic throughput and I/Os as they use the much faster PCIe bus to connect directly to multiple channels of flash memory, often using a built in RAID capability to stripe data across multiple channels of flash mounted directly on board the add-in card.

To help clear up confusion for some of the readers, the primary differences between PCIe Flash memory and conventional SSDs can be summarized as follows:

Where PCIe Flash Works Well

The current generation of PCIe flash SSDs are best suited to applications that require the absolute highest performance with less of an emphasis on long term serviceability as you have to take the computer offline to replace defective or worn out SSDs. They also tend to work best when the total storage requirements for the application can live on the flash drive. Today’s capacities of up to 320G (SLC) or 640G (MLC) are more than ample for many database applications, so placing the entire SQL database on the drive is not uncommon. Host software RAID 1 is typically used to make the setup more robust but starts to get expensive as high capacity PCIe SSD cards run well north of $10,000 retail, the high price typically a result of the extensive reliability and redundancy capability of the card’s on-board flash controller. As the number of PCIe flash adapter offerings grow and the market segments into the more traditional low-mid-high product categories and features, expect the average price of these types of products to come down relatively fast.

Where SSDs Work Well

SATA or SAS based SSDs, by design, work pretty much anywhere a conventional hard drive does. For that reason we see laptops, desktops, servers and external disk arrays adopting them relatively quickly. Depending on the PCIe flash being compared to, it can take anywhere from 5-8 SSDs to match the performance of a PCIe version using a hardware RAID adapter which tends to push the overall price higher when using the more expensive SLC based SSDs. So SATA or SAS SSDs tend to be best suited to applications that can use them as a form of cache in combination with a traditional SATA or SAS disk array setup. For instance, it is possible to achieve a similar performance and significantly lower system and running costs using 1-4 enterprise class SSDs and SATA drive in a SAN disk array versus a Fibre Channel or SAS 15K SAN disk array setup. Most disk array vendors are now offering SSD versions of their Fibre Channel, iSCSI or SAS based RAID offerings.

Enterprise Flash Memory Industry Direction

At the Flash Summit we learned that between SSDs and DRAM a new class of storage will appear for computing, referred to as SCM, or storage class memory. Defined as something broader than just ultra fast flash based storage, it does require that the storage be persistent and appear more like conventional DRAM does to the host i.e. linear memory versus a storage I/O controller with mass storage and a SCSI host driver. SCM is expected to enter mainstream servers by 2013.

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