Benefits of using NVMe over PCI Express Fabrics

Reduced communication overhead

NVM Express (NVMe) over Fabrics defines a common architecture that supports a range of networking hardware (e.g. Infiniband, RoCE, iWARP) for a NVMe block storage protocol over a networking fabric.

NVMe devices have a direct PCIe interface. NVMe over Fabrics defines a software stacks to implement a transport abstraction layers at both sides of the fabric interfaces, to translate native PCIe transactions and disk operations over the fabric.

A PCIe fabric is different. Native PCIe transactions (TLPs) are forwarded automatically over the fabric with no protocol conversion. Standard PCIe NT technology is used to route the PCIe traffic from the host computer to the NVMe device. Device Interrupts are also automatically routed through the PCIe fabric. The image below illustrates the difference between using an PCIe Fabric and other Fabrics. PCIe Fabrics eliminate the transport abstraction, thus providing a much lower latency. It also still supports features such as RDMA.

NVMe over Fabrics PCIe

SmartIO Dynamic Device Lending

PCIe NTB switches are used to form the PCIe Fabric. PCIe transactions can automatically be routed through the PCIe fabric but software is needed to set up the routing between the systems and devices. Dolphin's eXpressWare 5.5.0 and newer includes software that easily enables customers to create an efficient and resilient PCIe Fabric.

Dolphin's PCIe SmartIO Device Lending software will use some resources to establish and remove the remote access but is not actively involved in the device to system communication. Devices such as NVMe drivers can be borrowed from various systems in a PCIe Fabric.

PCIe NVMe fabric device lending

Comparison to other NVMe over Fabrics solutions

The table below summarized the differences between local NVMe access and NVMe over Fabrics alternatives.

NVMe communication comparison

Technology Local PCIe NVMe over PCIe Fabrics NVMe over RDMA Fabrics
Identification Bus/Device/Function NodeId / FabricId NVMe Qualified Name (NQN)
Data transport PCIe TLPs PCIe TLPs RDMA
Queueing Host Memory Host Memory Message-based
Latency Local NVMe Local NVMe + 700 nanoseconds Local NVMe + 10 microseconds
NVMe driver Standard NVMe driver Standard NVMe driver Special NVMe over Fabrics software
Transport technology Standard PCIe chipsets Standard PCIe chipset Infiniband, RoCE, iWARP, Fiber Channel
Scalability Single host 1-8 hosts (64 / 128 hosts in H2-2018)  





NVMe over PCIe Fabric Features

Feature NVMe over PCIe Fabrics
Ease of use No modifications to Linux or device drivers. Works with all PCIe based storage solutions.
Reliability Self-throttling, guaranteed delivery at hardware level, no dropped frames or packets due to congestion. Support for hot plugging of cables, full error containment and transparent recovery.
NVMe Optimized Client Send and receive native NVMe commands directly to and from the fabric.
Low Latency Fabric Optimized for low latency. Latency as low a 540 ns data transfers.
Direct memory access Supports direct memory region access for applications.
Fabric scaling Scales to 100s of devices or more.
Multi-port support Multiple ports for simultaneous communication.


The NVMe over PCIe Fabric solution does not include any software abstraction layers and the remote system and the NVMe device are able to communicate without using CPU or memory resources in the system where the NVMe is physically located.

The dominating part of the latency for other NVMe over Fabrics solution is originating from the software emulation layers and are around 10 microseconds end to end. With the NVMe over PCIe Fabric solution, there is no software emulation layer and adds no more than around 700 nanoseconds (depends on the computer and IO system). This latency originates from crossing a few PCIe bridges in the PCIe fabric verses a software emulation layer.

The NVMe over PCIe fabric supports device DMA engines. These engines will typically move data between the device and memory in the system borrowing the device. No network specific RDMA is needed.


The NVMe over PCIe fabric is resilient to errors. The eXpressWare driver implement full error containment and will ensure that no user data is lost due to transient errors. PCIe NTB managed cables can be hot plugged, and the remote NVMe will only be unavailable while the cable is disconnected.


The SmartIO Device Lending software is included with the eXpressWare 5.5.0 release and newer for Linux. The solution is available with Dolphins PXH810, PXH830, PXH840 and MXH830 cards.

SISCI SmartIO with NVMe

Dolphin has developed a software user space API (SISCI SmartIO) to enable concurrent sharing of single function devices between nodes connected to a PCIe fabric. As a test case of the new SmartIO API, we have implemented an user space NVMe driver that allows a single-function SSD to be shared concurrently among multiple nodes over a PCIe fabric. More information on SISCI SmartIO.

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