In the upper echelons of commercial workhouses, having access to copious amounts of local NVMe storage is more of a requirement than ‘something nice to have’. We’ve seen solutions in this space include custom FPGAs to software breakout boxes, and more recently a number of the motherboard vendors have provided PCIe x16 Quad M.2 cards for the market. The only downside is that they rely on the processor bifurcation, i.e. the ability for the processor to drive multiple devices from a single PCIe x16 slot. HighPoint has got around that limitation.

The current way of getting four NVMe M.2 drives in a single PCIe x16 slot sounds fairly easy. There are 16 lanes in the slot, and each drive can take up to four lanes, so what is all the fuss? The problem arises from the CPU side of the equation: that PCIe slot connects directly to one PCIe x16 root complex on the chip, and depending on the configuration it may only be expecting one device to be connected to it. The minute you put four devices in, it might not know what to do. In order to get this to work, you need a single device to act as a communication facilitator between the drives and the CPU. This is where PCIe switches come in. Some motherboards already use these to split a PCIe x16 complex into x8/x8 when different cards are inserted. For something a bit bigger, like bootable NVMe, then HighPoint use something bigger (and more expensive).

The best way to get around that limitation is to use a PCIe switch, and in this case HighPoint is using PLX8747 chip with custom firmware for booting. This switch is not cheap (not since Avago is now at the helm of the company and increased the pricing by several multiples), but it does allow for that configurable interface between the CPU and the drives that works in all scenarios. Up until today, HighPoint already had a device on the market for this, the SSD7101-A, which enabled four M.2 NVMe drives to connect to the machine. What makes the SSD7102 different is that the firmware inside the PLX chip has been changed, and it now allows for booting from a RAID of NVMe drives.

The SSD7102 supports booting with RAID 0 across all four drives, with RAID 1 across pairs of drives, or booting from a single drive in a JBOD configuration. Each drive in the JBOD can be configured to be a boot drive, allowing for multiple OS installs across the different drives. The SSD7102 supports any M.2 NVMe drives from any vendor, although for RAID setups it is advised that identical drives are used.

The card is a single slot device with a heatsink and a 50mm blower fan, to keep every drive cool. Drives up to the full 22110 standard are supported, and HighPoint says that the card is supported under Windows 10, Server 2012 R2 (or later), Linux Kernel 3.3 (or later) and macOS 10.13 (or later). Management of the drives after installation occurs through a browser based tool or a custom API for deployments that want to do their own management, and rebuilding arrays is automatic with auto-resume features. MTBF is set at just under 1M hours, with a typical power draw (minus drives) at 8W. HighPoint states that both AMD and Intel are supported, and given the presence of the PCIe switch, I suspect the card would also ‘work’ in PCIe x8 or x4 modes too.

The PCIe card is due out in November, either direct from HighPoint or through reseller/distribution partners. It is expected to have an MSRP of $399, the same as the current SSD7101-A which does not have the RAID bootable option.

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  • Billy Tallis - Wednesday, October 24, 2018 - link

    Microsemi also makes PCIe switches, in competition with PLX/Avago/Broadcom. But they're both targeting the datacenter market heavily and don't want to reduce their margins enough to cater to consumers. Until most server platforms have as many PCIe lanes as EPYC, these switches will be very lucrative in the datacenter and thus too expensive for consumers. Reply
  • The_Assimilator - Wednesday, October 24, 2018 - link

    Very good question, IMO the cost of PLX switches has been holding back interesting board features like this for a long time, we really need a competitor in this arena and I feel that anyone who chose to compete would be able to make a lot of money. Reply
  • Kjella - Wednesday, October 24, 2018 - link

    Mainly the SLI market died. The single cards became too powerful, the problems too many because it was niche and poorly supported. That only left professional users which lead to lower volume, higher prices. But the problem now was you started to reach a price range where you could just buy enthusiast/server platforms with more lanes. So PLX chips became an even more niche for special enterprise level needs. To top that off AMDs Threadripper/Epyc line went PCIe lane crazy with 64/128 native lanes and bifurcation for those who need it, which leaves them with with hardly any market at all. You'd have to be crazy to invest in re-inventing this technology, this is just PLX trying to squeeze the last few dollars out of a dying technology. Reply
  • npz - Wednesday, October 24, 2018 - link

    The PLX 8747 is an old design that's been around for some time, but it's a well known one that OS makers for drivers are well aware of its flaws. There is competition--a lot of models to choose from actually, but the competition is all in the data center/enterprise so the prices remain high. No one in this market wants to commoditize their product.

    IDT switches:

    Microsemi switches:

    Broadcom switches:

    They're becoming even more important with scale out PCIE fabrics for NVME over fabric, where you can different transports like 40G/100G ethernet in between and translate back and forth to PCIE with the switch handling the translation and doing DMA. With large NVME storage and fabrics, not even the built in pcie lanes of EPYC is enough.
  • npz - Wednesday, October 24, 2018 - link

    edit: that was meant for @rtho782 re: competitors Reply
  • Billy Tallis - Wednesday, October 24, 2018 - link

    The IDT chips aren't serious competitors, because they only support PCIe 1.x and 2.x. It's really just Broadcom vs Microsemi at the moment, with the Marvell 88NR2241 starting to compete in a small niche. Reply
  • npz - Wednesday, October 24, 2018 - link

    Unfortunately that page isn't updated. It's briefly mentioned in the overview, but they DO have gen 3 switches:

    and it's already out. I know because I've used a machine with them :)
  • Vatharian - Wednesday, October 24, 2018 - link

    I'm sitting near nForce 780SLI (ASUS P5NT Deluxe) and Intel Skulltrail, both have PCIe switches. After that most of my multi-PCIe boards where dual CPU, thanks to Intel being a male reproductive organ to consumers, and AMD spectacularly failing to deliver any system capable of anything more than increased power bill.

    On the fun side, mining haze brought a lot of small players to the yard that learned how to work PCI-Express magic. Some of them may try tackling switch challenge, at some point, which I very much wish for.

    Things might have been more lively if PCI SIG didn't stopped to smell flowers too. Excuse me, how many years we are stuck at PCI-Expess 2.5?
  • Bytales - Wednesday, October 24, 2018 - link

    People dont know but this is not something new. Amfeltec did a similar board, perhaps with a similar splitter, and it works with 4 NVME ssds.
    I had to order from them directly from Canada and payed 400 500 dolars, idont know. But it was at a time, where People kept telling me 4 NVMes from a single pci express 3.0 16x is impossible.
    I have 3 SSDs, a 250 960 evo, a 512 950pro and a 250 WD black 2018 model. They are both recognized without any hiccups whatsoever, and all are individually bootable.
  • npz - Wednesday, October 24, 2018 - link

    From the manual, they use a PCIE switch, like Highpoint.

    > People kept telling me 4 NVMes from a single pci express 3.0 16x is impossible.

    On most desktop boards, excluding HEDT platforms like X299, X399, which have lane bifurcation and enough lanes to bifurcate with, it is indeed impossible without a switch.

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