NVM Express (NVMe) or Non-Volatile Memory Host Controller Interface Specification (NVMHCIS) is an open logical device interface specification for accessing non-volatile storage media attached via a PCI Express (PCIe) bus. The acronym NVM stands for non-volatile memory, which is often NAND flash memory that comes in several physical form factors, including solid-state drives (SSDs), PCI Express (PCIe) add-in cards, M.2 cards, and other forms. NVM Express, as a logical device interface, has been designed to capitalize on the low latency and internal parallelism of solid-state storage devices.
By its design, NVM Express allows host hardware and software to fully exploit the levels of parallelism possible in modern SSDs. As a result, NVM Express reduces I/O overhead and brings various performance improvements relative to previous logical-device interfaces, including multiple long command queues, and reduced latency. (The previous interface protocols were developed for use with far slower hard disk drives (HDD) where a very lengthy delay (relative to CPU operations) exists between a request and data transfer, where data speeds are much slower than RAM speeds, and where disk rotation and seek time give rise to further optimization requirements.)
NVM Express devices are chiefly available in the form of standard-sized PCI Express expansion cards and as 2.5-inch form-factor devices that provide a four-lane PCI Express interface through the U.2 connector (formerly known as SFF-8639). However, there are also storage devices using SATA Express and the M.2 specification which support NVM Express as the logical device interface. These have recently become a popular use-case for NVMe and are quickly becoming the dominant form of solid-state storage for desktops and laptops alike.
Main change between 1.2 and 1.3 and new features are:
Identify Namespace return list of Namespace Identifiers
A list of Namespace Identification Descriptor structures is returned to the host for the namespace specified.
A number of differences and optional features have been added, including: Device Self-Test, Sanitize, Directives, Boot Partition, Telemetry, Virtualization Enhancements, NVMe-MI Management Enhancements, Host Controlled Thermal Management, Timestamp, Emulated Controller Performance Enhancement, along with a number of changes from past behaviour, see: NVMe 1.3 Changes Overview (.PDF download webpage) for details.
Historically, most SSDs used buses such as SATA, SAS or Fibre Channel for interfacing with the rest of a computer system. Since SSDs became available in mass markets, SATA has become the most typical way for connecting SSDs in personal computers; however, SATA was designed primarily for interfacing with mechanical hard disk drives (HDDs), and it became increasingly inadequate for SSDs, which improved in speed over time. For example, within about 5 years of mass market mainstream adoption (2005-2010) many SSDs were already held back by the comparatively slow data rates available for hard drives--unlike hard disk drives, some SSDs are limited by the maximum throughput of SATA.
High-end SSDs had been made using the PCI Express bus before NVMe, but using non-standard specification interfaces. By standardizing the interface of SSDs, operating systems only need one driver to work with all SSDs adhering to the specification. It also means that each SSD manufacturer does not have to use additional resources to design specific interface drivers. This is similar to how USB mass storage devices are built to follow the USB mass-storage device class specification and work with all computers, with no per-device drivers needed.
The first details of a new standard for accessing non-volatile memory emerged at the Intel Developer Forum 2007, when NVMHCI was shown as the host-side protocol of a proposed architectural design that had Open NAND Flash Interface Working Group (ONFI) on the memory (flash) chips side. A NVMHCI working group led by Intel was formed that year. The NVMHCI 1.0 specification was completed in April 2008 and released on Intel's web site.
Technical work on NVMe began in the second half of 2009. The NVMe specifications were developed by the NVM Express Workgroup, which consists of more than 90 companies; Amber Huffman of Intel was the working group's chair. Version 1.0 of the specification was released on 1 March 2011, while version 1.1 of the specification was released on 11 October 2012. Major features added in version 1.1 are multi-path I/O (with namespace sharing) and arbitrary-length scatter-gather I/O. It is expected that future revisions will significantly enhance namespace management. Because of its feature focus, NVMe 1.1 was initially called "Enterprise NVMHCI". An update for the base NVMe specification, called version 1.0e, was released in January 2013. In June 2011, a Promoter Group led by seven companies was formed.
The first commercially available NVMe chipsets were released by Integrated Device Technology (89HF16P04AG3 and 89HF32P08AG3) in August 2012. The first NVMe drive, Samsung's XS1715 enterprise drive, was announced in July 2013; according to Samsung, this drive supported 3 GB/s read speeds, six times faster than their previous enterprise offerings. The LSI SandForce SF3700 controller family, released in November 2013, also supports NVMe. A Kingston HyperX "prosumer" product using this controller was showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show 2014 and promised similar performance. In June 2014, Intel announced their first NVM Express products, the Intel SSD data center family that interfaces with the host through PCI Express bus, which includes the DC P3700 series, the DC P3600 series, and the DC P3500 series. As of November 2014[update], NVMe drives are commercially available.
In March 2014, the group incorporated to become NVM Express, Inc., which as of November 2014[update] consists of more than 65 companies from across the industry. NVM Express specifications are owned and maintained by NVM Express, Inc., which also promotes industry awareness of NVM Express as an industry-wide standard. NVM Express, Inc. is directed by a thirteen-member board of directors selected from the Promoter Group, which includes Cisco, Dell, EMC, HGST, Intel, Micron, Microsoft, NetApp, Oracle, PMC, Samsung, SanDisk and Seagate.
U.2 formerly known as SFF-8639, is a computer interface for connecting solid state drives to a computer. It uses up to four PCI Express lanes. A Dell PowerEdge R730xd server can combine up to 4 U.2 NVMe solid state drives. Other server vendors such as HPE, IBM, Inspur and Supermicro have the same type of product support for U.2 NVMe solid state drives.
U.3 is built on the U.2 spec and uses the same SFF-8639 connector. It is a 'Tri-mode' standard, combining SAS, SATA and NVMe support into a single controller. U.3 can also support hot-swap between the different drives where firmware support is available. U.3 drives are still backward compatible with U.2, but U.2 drives are not compatible with U.3 hosts.
NVM Express over Fabrics (NVMe-oF) is the concept of using a transport protocol over a network to connect remote devices, contrary to NVMe where devices are connected directly to PCIe bus (or over a PCIe switch to a PCIe bus) In September 2014, a standard for using NVMe over Fibre Channel (FC) was proposed and this combination is often referred to as FC-NVMe (or sometimes NVMe/FC). NVMe-oF is a communication protocol that allows one computer to access block-level storage devices attached to another computer via remote direct memory access over a number of transport protocols:
Starting with Linux Kernel 5.0 native support has been added for NVMe/TCP.
Comparison with AHCI
The Advanced Host Controller Interface (AHCI) has the benefit of wide software compatibility, but has the downside of not delivering optimal performance when used with SSDs connected via the PCI Express bus. As a logical interface, AHCI was developed when the purpose of a host bus adapter (HBA) in a system was to connect the CPU/memory subsystem with a much slower storage subsystem based on rotating magnetic media. As a result, AHCI introduces certain inefficiencies when used with SSD devices, which behave much more like DRAM than like spinning media.
The NVMe device interface has been designed from the ground up, capitalizing on the low latency and parallelism of PCI Express SSDs, and complementing the parallelism of contemporary CPUs, platforms and applications. At a high level, the basic advantages of NVMe over AHCI relate to its ability to exploit parallelism in host hardware and software, manifested by the differences in command queue depths, efficiency of interrupt processing, the number of uncacheable register accesses, etc., resulting in various performance improvements.:17-18
The table below summarizes high-level differences between the NVMe and AHCI logical device interfaces.
Intel sponsored a NVM Express driver for FreeBSD's head and stable/9 branches. The nvd(4) and nvme(4) drivers are included in the GENERIC kernel configuration by default since FreeBSD version 10.2 in 2015.
With the release of the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, Apple introduced the first mobile deployment of NVMe over PCIe in smartphones. Apple followed these releases with the release of the iPad Pro and iPhone SE that also use NVMe over PCIe.
Intel published an NVM Express driver for Linux on 3 March 2011, which was merged into the Linux kernel mainline on 18 January 2012 and released as part of version 3.3 of the Linux kernel on 19 March 2012.
Development work required to support NVMe in OpenBSD has been started in April 2014 by a senior developer formerly responsible for USB 2.0 and AHCI support. Support for NVMe has been enabled in the OpenBSD 6.0 release.
Intel has provided an NVMe driver for VMware, which is included in vSphere 6.0 and later builds, supporting various NVMe devices. As of vSphere 6 update 1, VMware's VSAN software-defined storage subsystem also supports NVMe devices.
The OpenFabrics Alliance maintains an open-source NVMe Windows Driver for Windows 7/8/8.1 and Windows Server 2008R2/2012/2012R2, developed from the baseline code submitted by several promoter companies in the NVMe workgroup, specifically IDT, Intel, and LSI. The current release is 1.5 from December 2016.
NVMe is supported by QEMU since version 1.6 released on August 15, 2013.
An open source NVMe driver for UEFI is available on SourceForge.