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What's the future of NVMe storage in the data center?

As the NVMe market matures, adopters are gaining new capabilities and options for where and how to use the technology. See what industry experts have to say.

NVMe SSD technology has come a long way over the past several years, helping a growing number of enterprises address the storage requirements of increasingly demanding applications.

Recent trends around NVMe include the introduction of NVMe-oF, an emerging technology that's extending NVMe's performance and economies across the data center, and the increasing use of NVMe for specialized, storage-demanding applications, such as AI. Looking at the future of NVMe storage, both of those trends will play a significant role.

As NVMe technology evolves, new storage capabilities are emerging. Meanwhile, existing storage functions are also receiving a significant performance boost. "Most data centers have adopted, or are adopting, all-flash for primary data," said Andy Walls, IBM Fellow and CTO of flash storage. "This has provided significant benefits for traditional applications, like databases and virtual server instances."

Falling prices and evolving servers

NVMe adoption will continue growing as prices spiral downward, predicted Mark Noland, field application engineer at memory product manufacturer Kingston. "The next big trend for NVMe will be increased adoption as prices come to parity with SATA SSD," he said. "Will people still buy SATA drives if NVMe drives are priced the same?" The answer is obvious, he said: Sales of SATA drives will decline as NVMe units build a steadily increasing market share.

Noland also expects, as the future of NVMe storage unfolds, the number of NVMe drives used by a single system may soon change the types of CPUs organizations buy, as well as how much dynamic RAM goes along with those CPUs. "Most OEMs currently support NVMe more as an add-on or afterthought in their current designs," Noland said. "Server designs will change and adapt to the demands of an all-NVMe flash array over the next 24 months or so."

Flash array purchase drivers
Reducing cost and updating legacy storage are top drivers of flash array purchases.

Bye-bye SCSI

Like SATA, SCSI is also fading into history. Over the past several years, as more enterprises have turned to big, data-driven, AI-powered analytics to find correlations and forecast trends, the need for fast, reliable storage has increased. SCSI SSDs provided the answer -- but only to a certain extent.

NVMe SSD unit shipments

"If you have to do that type of work with any sense of urgency, SCSI is just not fast enough," said Eric Burgener, research vice president in the infrastructure systems, platforms and technologies group at technology research firm IDC. That's why NVMe-oF technology is rapidly replacing SCSI deployment.

Resilient hard drives

While SATA and SCSI are headed for the exit door, an even older technology shows no sign of disappearing anytime soon. Despite a burgeoning SSD market and the bright future of NVMe storage, the venerable HDD isn't about to crash into obscurity. "There are still a lot of HDD-based storage arrays being sold," Burgener said. "There are companies that just don't need flash performance for their workloads, and HDDs are much cheaper to buy."

Until NVMe, we always treated data center storage as devices. Storage was basically a device; we'd talk to a device.
J MetzR&D engineer for advanced storage, Cisco

In 2018, 80% of the revenue generated by external storage array sales came from primary workloads, Burgener explained. These are latency-sensitive, mission-critical workloads, and virtually all of this revenue was driven by the sale of all-flash arrays.

As for the other 20% of external storage arrays? Those devices are used for secondary storage applications. "These are nonperformance-sensitive, but they tend to be bigger. They require more capacity," Burgener said. "Backup, archives, disaster recovery -- that's where most of the HDDs are still being sold today."

For secondary workloads, HDDs tend to be good enough. "Flash is more expensive, and there's no real benefit for additional performance because these workloads really don't require that level of performance," Burgener added.

The future of NVMe storage: Blurring the line

NVMe is not only revolutionizing storage, but it's changing the way IT managers view both storage and memory. "Until NVMe, we always treated data center storage as devices. Storage was basically a device; we'd talk to a device," said J Metz, R&D engineer for advanced storage at Cisco and member of the Storage Networking Industry Association's board of directors.

With its blazing speed, NVMe blurs the distinction between storage and memory. "In other words, we treat the actual data itself as if it was an extension of memory for the data center," Metz noted. "By being able to be closer to the actual information itself, you remove a lot of extra stuff, a lot of abstraction, a lot of inefficiencies."

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