NVMe Controllers Unlock the Potential of Enterprise SSDs

Article By : Gary Hilson

Smaller form factors and more storage density are becoming increasingly popular to support more artificial intelligence and machine learning workloads...

Just as NVMe has unlocked the true value of non-volatile flash in SSDs, it’s becoming more important that these SSDs have a controller that maximizes the potential of today’s NAND in these drives, especially as NVMe makes gains against SATA and SAS drives. The customer base is evolving too, with OEMs and hyperscalers expecting more flexibility and programmability for their own customizations. Microchip Technology’s new 8-channel Flashtec PCIe Gen 4 Enterprise NVMe SSD controller builds on the company’s Flashtec NVMe 3016. The new Flashtec NVMe 3108 specifically focuses on smaller form factors such as M.2 and the newer SNIA Enterprise and Data Center SSD Form Factor (EDSFF) E1.S, as these are becoming increasingly popular in data centers to support more artificial intelligence and machine learning workloads. Cloud scale infrastructure needs to provide more bandwidth to storage and more storage density per rack. This Flashtec NVMe 3108 is a firmware-compatible derivative of Microchip’s 3016 controller, said Mark Orthodoxou, Microchip’s director of product marketing for its data center solutions. In addition to meeting the needs of smaller form factors and accommodating the rack density customers are looking for, there is also a lot of flexibility while adhering to industry standards. “Flexibility is key for us because customers want to do new and innovative things,” he said in a telephone interview with EE Times. “Some of those customers value performance and flexibility over all else because they want to do something with a drive that maybe they can’t get from an off-the-shelf drive from the commercial SSD supplier.”
Microchip Technology’s new 8-channel Flashtec PCIe Gen 4 Enterprise NVMe SSD Controller is targeted at the M.2 and recently announced E1.S form factor, which was optimized for the NVMe drive design for use across all data center and edge systems. (Source: Microchip Technology)
At the same time, said Orthodoxou, the architecture between the 3108 and the 3016 is the same, “so you can import that customization over from one to the other.” In terms of speeds and feeds, the 3108 enables more than one million IOs per second (IOPS) for random workloads and greater than 6 Gigabytes per second (GB/s) of sequential bandwidth. Security and reliability features include secure boot with Hardware Root of Trust, FIPS 140-2/3 certification, and error correction engines. “Security is a huge topic. It’s almost table stakes now for any of our customers.” Microchip’s customers aren’t just the SSD suppliers, Orthodoxou said, but also increasingly OEMs and hyperscalers who want to do some kind of customization. “They’re actually taking control of the whole drive and writing their own firmware on controllers, sourcing the NAND, and working through contract manufacturers to build the drives themselves.” This market segment is hard to track, he said, but Microchip has some visibility into it because it sells directly to it. “This is a growing and sizable portion of the SSD market today.”
Microchip has opted to move to a multi-core ARM architecture to further simplify programming for customers. (Source: Microchip Technology)
That growing market is expecting flexibility, which is why the 3108 has a programmable multi-core ARM subsystem, rather than a Tensilica-based one. “This puts us on the rich ARM roadmap. Customers like programming on ARM,” said Orthodoxou. “It’s a simpler thing for them to program to.” Jim Handy, principal analyst at Objective Analysis, said the time has come for mainstream PCIe/NVMe SSD controllers, as SATA loses ground to NVMe. The design team for the 3018 has an excellent pedigree, as it’s the same team that developed the first monolithic PCIe SSD controller at IDT. “They know how to steer around all of the potholes better than anybody,” he said. “I would expect for this to be a very solid design.” IDT sold that part of the business to PMC Sierra, which was acquired by MicroSemi, which was in turn acquired by Microchip, noted Handy, so there’s some strong continuity, as well as changes to simplify things for customers, including eschewing a Tensilica processor that was customized for SSDs in favor of a plain old ARM core as their customers find it easier to hire experienced ARM programmers than experienced Tensilica programmers. “The fact that the new mainstream controller is based on a field-proven performance controller (the 3016) says that this product should be completely ready to go, with lots of tested firmware support and good compatibility with the wide range of NAND flash specifications that designers need to cope with.”

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