Marvell unveils first scalable PCIe NAND flash controller

Manufacturers can use controller to scale NAND flash cards up or down with commodity hardware

Marvell Friday launched what it's calling the industry's first PCI Express (PCIe) NAND flash controller, which it describes as a building block that allows solid state drive (SSD) and system manufacturers to scale products in capacity and performance using commodity hardware.

Marvell's new 88NV9145 (9145) flash controller is an application specific integrated circuit (ASIC) that uses a PCIe switch to create a scalable flash card for businesses. SSD or system manufacturers can add two to 16 of the 9145 controllers and consumer-class NAND flash and incrementally scale their product for different applications.

Each 9145 ASIC, or native PCIe-to-NAND flash controller, can support up to 128GB and can achieve up to 93,000 4K random read IOPS and 70,000 4K random write IOPS.

Marvell's new 99NV9145 native PCIe NAND flash controller. At the top of the module is the PCIe slot.

For example, a manufacturer could plug four 9145 controllers into a PCIe switch and build out an entry-level PCIe NAND flash card that offers around 150,000 I/Os per second (IOPS) for gaming systems or workstations. Or 16 of the controllers could be placed on a PCIe switch for about 1.4 million IOPS, which could be used for enterprise-class OLTP databases, according to Shawn Kung, director of product marketing for Marvell's storage business.

"We're not reinventing PCIe-native SSDs, we're re-architecting them," Kung said. "The ultimate benefit to CIOs is that by providing an architecture that leverages low cost, high performance native PCIe-to-NAND, it achieves price performance levels not seen before."

Mark Peters, an analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group, said what sets Marvell's new flash module apart from others on the market today is its ability to scale to address multiple business applications.

He criticized other NAND flash system manufacturers for being mostly focused on performance rather than tailoring their products to meet more general needs.

"People are saying, I don't need a 6.9-liter twin-turbo intercooled engine in my car to go to [the grocery store]. Please sell me the 4.2-liter gas hybrid to do that," he said. "And, Marvell is saying if you want, you can also scale it to a 6.9 liter engine when you want it. That's really smart."

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Eight Marvell 9145 controllers on an engineering evaluation reference board. The 9145 controller uses PCIe 2.0 x1 to talk to the PCIe switch that is on the reference board. The switch talks to the host server CPU via PCIe 2.0 x8 in this reference design

Because Marvell's chip is an ASIC and not a more typical and expensive field-programmable gate array chip (FPGA), it can be used to build PCIe cards at one-tenth the cost, according to Kung.

"FPGA's are why you see PCIe SSDs going for $10,000 or more," Kung said. "This is not a case of 10% off of a FPGA-based controller card. This is at least a magnitude of order difference in price."

The controller supports a PCIe 2.0 x1 interface, ARM-based processor, external Double Data Rate (DDR) interface and four NAND flash channels with up to four Chip Selects per channel. The four chip select channels allow up to four NAND flash devices to be connected to the same computer bus.

The 9145 controller supports industry standard flash interfaces such as ONFI2 and Toggle mode, and all NAND types, including multi-level cell, single-level cell and enterprise multi-level cell.

David Raun, vice president of business development at PLX Technology, a maker of component switches, said that by enabling customers to build native PCIe SSDs without any SAS/SATA protocol overhead, the 88NV9145 "represent the future of SSD market growth."

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian, or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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