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What is NVMe?

Let's take a tour inside our computers and learn about NVMe.

What is NVMe?

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What is NVMe?

We get this question quite a bit at Equinix Metal, where you are getting bare metal hardware. This means that you get all the power - and the complexity - of the hardware itself.

So, what is it, and why does it matter?

In line with our "what is" series, let's look at some of the innards of how our computers work, specifically storage.

Let's start with the name "NVMe". NVMe is an acronym - after all, how would you pronounce it otherwise, "nnvvmm-eee"? - which stands for "Non Volatile Memory Express". Let's break that down.

First, "Non Volatile Memory". This is a fancy way of saying "storage that doesn't lose its data when you turn off the power". This is in contrast to "volatile memory", which is memory that does lose its data when you turn off the power. The most common form of volatile memory is RAM, or Random Access Memory.

When you look up the specs for your computer, for example, Equinix Metal's all-purpose workhorse m3.large.x86, you see that it has 256GB of memory:

m3.large.x86 RAM

That 256GB of memory is volatile memory. As long as the computer is powered on, the memory will keep whatever the operating system, as well as your services running on it, have stored in it. Loaded all of the calculations for your spreadsheet? It's in memory as long as the power stays on. Got all of the parameters for your AI model in memory? It stays as long as the power stays on.

When the power goes off, all of it is lost. Which is why we have permanent, or non-volatile storage, like your hard disk drive (HDD) or solid state drive (SSD). These keep their state even without power.

Looking back at the specs for the m3.large.x86, you see that it has 2x 240GB SSDs:

m3.large.x86 boot drive

That's the hard drive, in this case a faster SSD.

As an aside, why is it called non-volatile, and not just "persistent"? Actually, it is. We will see shortly why the term "non-volatile" is particularly useful, and used, in this case, shortly.

RAM is also much more expensive than persistent storage. Look, for example, at the AWS m5d instance types:

m5d.large	2	8	1 x 75 NVMe SSD	Up to 10	Up to 4,750
m5d.xlarge	4	16	1 x 150 NVMe SSD	Up to 10	Up to 4,750
m5d.2xlarge	8	32	1 x 300 NVMe SSD	Up to 10	Up to 4,750
m5d.4xlarge	16	64	2 x 300 NVMe SSD	Up to 10	4,750
m5d.8xlarge	32	128	2 x 600 NVMe SSD	10	6,800
m5d.12xlarge	48	192	2 x 900 NVMe SSD	12	9,500
m5d.16xlarge	64	256	4 x 600 NVMe SSD	20	13,600
m5d.24xlarge	96	384	4 x 900 NVMe SSD	25	19,000
m5d.metal	96*	384	4 x 900 NVMe SSD	25	19,000

Every type has almost 10x as much SSD as RAM.

If non-volatile storage is so much better, i.e. it can hold data, well, non-volatilely (persistently), and it is so much cheaper, why don't we just use it for everything? Why do we need RAM at all?

The answer is speed.

I went to Equinix Metal console and launched the exact same type above, the m3.large.x86. Let's see what is installed.

root@m3-large-x86-01:~# lsblk
NAME    MAJ:MIN RM   SIZE RO TYPE MOUNTPOINTS
loop0     7:0    0  63.5M  1 loop /snap/core20/1891
loop1     7:1    0 111.9M  1 loop /snap/lxd/24322
loop2     7:2    0  53.2M  1 loop /snap/snapd/19122
sda       8:0    0 447.1G  0 disk
sdb       8:16   0 223.6G  0 disk
├─sdb1    8:17   0     2M  0 part
├─sdb2    8:18   0   1.9G  0 part [SWAP]
└─sdb3    8:19   0 221.7G  0 part /
sdc       8:32   0 223.6G  0 disk
nvme1n1 259:0    0   3.5T  0 disk
nvme0n1 259:1    0   3.5T  0 disk

Here are all of the block devices. The important ones for now are sda1, sdb and sdc, our boot disks.

Let's see what types those are (abbreviated output):

root@m3-large-x86-01:~# lshw -class disk
  *-disk
       description: ATA Disk
       product: MTFDDAK480TDS
       physical id: 0.0.0
       bus info: scsi@12:0.0.0
       logical name: /dev/sda
       version: J004
       serial: 213230B0EA3F
       size: 447GiB (480GB)
       capacity: 447GiB (480GB)
       configuration: ansiversion=6 logicalsectorsize=512 sectorsize=4096
  *-disk:0
       description: ATA Disk
       product: SSDSCKKB240G8R
       physical id: 0
       bus info: scsi@9:0.0.0
       logical name: /dev/sdb
       version: DL6R
       serial: PHYH119600GA240J
       size: 223GiB (240GB)
       capabilities: gpt-1.00 partitioned partitioned:gpt
       configuration: ansiversion=5 guid=5b3cd9cd-ca15-4e77-8618-e513a931b29b logicalsectorsize=512 sectorsize=4096
  *-disk:1
       description: ATA Disk
       product: SSDSCKKB240G8R
       physical id: 1
       bus info: scsi@10:0.0.0
       logical name: /dev/sdc
       version: DL6R
       serial: PHYH11960104240J
       size: 223GiB (240GB)
       configuration: ansiversion=5 logicalsectorsize=512 sectorsize=4096

So our large sda is MTFDDAK480TDS, while the two sdb and sdc are SSDSCKKB240G8R. Google is our friend, and gives us the following results:

  • MTFDDAK480TDS: Micron 5300 PRO 480GB SATA 6Gbps 540MB/s read / 410 MB/s write
  • SSDSCKKB240G8R: Intel 240GB SATA 6Gbps Enterprise Class M.2 SSD

That Micron is large, and not bad at 540MB/s read / 410 MB/s write. Those Intel drives are smaller but almost 10x faster.

What about memory?

root@m3-large-x86-01:~# dmidecode --type 17
# dmidecode 3.3
Getting SMBIOS data from sysfs.
SMBIOS 3.3 present.

Handle 0x1100, DMI type 17, 92 bytes
Memory Device
	Array Handle: 0x1000
	Error Information Handle: Not Provided
	Total Width: 72 bits
	Data Width: 64 bits
	Size: 32 GB
	Form Factor: DIMM
	Set: 1
	Locator: A1
	Bank Locator: Not Specified
	Type: DDR4
	Type Detail: Synchronous Registered (Buffered)
	Speed: 3200 MT/s
	Manufacturer: 802C869D802C
	Serial Number: F28E1B79
	Asset Tag: 25212622
	Part Number: 36ASF4G72PZ-3G2J3
	Rank: 2
	Configured Memory Speed: 3200 MT/s
	Minimum Voltage: 1.2 V
	Maximum Voltage: 1.2 V
	Configured Voltage: 1.2 V
	Memory Technology: DRAM
	Memory Operating Mode Capability: Volatile memory
	Firmware Version: Not Specified
	Module Manufacturer ID: Unknown
	Module Product ID: Unknown
	Memory Subsystem Controller Manufacturer ID: Unknown
	Memory Subsystem Controller Product ID: Unknown
	Non-Volatile Size: None
	Volatile Size: 32 GB
	Cache Size: None
	Logical Size: None
    ...
    # repeats for each memory module

It is DDR4 memory, with "Configured Memory Speed: 3200 MT/s". We could go into a long-winded description of how that works, but let's keep things simple, and look at one of the best memory sites on the Internet, Crucial.

The chart at the top shows that "3200 MT/s" translates into 25600 MB/s of throughput, or 25 GB/s.

That is over 4 times faster than our sdb/sdc, and 50 times faster than our sda.

So SSDs are getting better and faster, but even our SATA SSDs are really slow in comparison.

If you think you can see a pattern here, you are right. First hard drives and now SSDs are getting faster and faster. This Wikipedia page shows how SSD read speeds have evolved from 49.3MB/s in 2007, up to 15GB/s in 2018, a 304x improvement in 11 years.

As persistent storage gets faster and faster, people start to use workloads on it that might have been too slow before. The faster-than-disk, more-affordable-than-RAM opens a whole new series of doors.

However, to take advantage of these speeds, and the required low latency to go with it, we need two things:

  1. A connection that can handle the throughput, speed and latency.
  2. A protocol, or language, that can standardize connection to this kind of storage.

Historically, disks were connected via various interfaces. The most recent and common for years was, and still is in many case, Serial AT Attachment (SATA).

If you look at the information on our sda, sdb, and sdc drives, you see that they connect via SATA:

root@m3-large-x86-01:~# lshw -class disk
  *-disk
       description: ATA Disk
       product: MTFDDAK480TDS
       physical id: 0.0.0
       bus info: scsi@12:0.0.0
       logical name: /dev/sda
       version: J004
       serial: 213230B0EA3F
       size: 447GiB (480GB)
       capacity: 447GiB (480GB)
       configuration: ansiversion=6 logicalsectorsize=512 sectorsize=4096

So what do we have?

First, we have faster persistent storage, getting closer and closer to memory. You almost could call it "persistent memory", but not quite. Well, isn't memory volatile? Doesn't that make this, "non-volatile memory"? Yes, yes, it does.

Second, we have a faster and more modern connection, PCIe to replace the older SATA.

Last, we just need a standard protocol to define how we will connect to various of these new faster storage devices, these persistent but catching-up-to-memory, sort of non-volatile memory, devices, over these faster buses.

Welcome to NVMe.

What does it mean for you when you see an NVMe drive? For example, our server from above has two such drives. Let's look at our NVMe information, using nvme:

root@m3-large-x86-01:~# nvme list
Node                  SN                   Model                                    Namespace Usage                      Format           FW Rev
--------------------- -------------------- ---------------------------------------- --------- -------------------------- ---------------- --------
/dev/nvme0n1          213330E6DC09         Micron_9300_MTFDHAL3T8TDP                1           3.84  TB /   3.84  TB    512   B +  0 B   11300DU0
/dev/nvme1n1          213330E6F3FF         Micron_9300_MTFDHAL3T8TDP                1           3.84  TB /   3.84  TB    512   B +  0 B   11300DU0

We have two drives, each offering 3.84TB of storage. Clearly, these are much larger than our other drives, 10-20 times as much storage.

The models for both of these are Micron_9300_MTFDHAL3T8TDP. Let's check them out at their official Micro page:

Micron NVMe Drive Spec

Note: that drive is 3500 MB/s read / 3100 MB/s write, and not GB/s

The read speed is 3500 MB/s, while the write speed is 3100 MB/s. Note that is in GB, i.e. gigabytes, and not Gb or gigbits, leaving us with 27 Gbps read / 24 Gbps write. In practice, it is unlikely to be quite that fast, but you can see how we are getting closer and closer to memory territory.

References

Last updated

14 April, 2024

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