NVMe over Fibre Channel: What You Need to Know

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NVMe over FC is a technology specification that uses nonvolatile memory express (NVMe) commands to transfer information and data over a high-speed Fibre Channel (FC) connection, accelerating data transfer speeds for storage area networks (SANs) or cloud-based storage. By enabling the NVMe protocol to be used over FC and Ethernet connections, it allows faster connectivity between storage devices and servers. This article explores how the technology works and details its uses and benefits.

How Does NVMe over Fibre Channel Work?

Historically, SANs used three protocols to transfer data: internet small computer systems interface (iSCSI), serial attached SCSI (SAS), and Fibre Channel Protocol (FCP). But the shortcomings of these protocols became apparent when they proved unable to support the full potential of high speed solid state storage.

The solution was NVMe, a new storage access and transport protocol specifically designed for solid state drives (SSDs), all-flash storage arrays, and other solid-state storage technologies. Here’s an overview of the individual and combined technologies:

  • Non-Volatile Memory Express. NVMe allows a storage interface and a computer’s CPU to communicate through a high-speed Peripheral Component Interconnect Express (PCIe) bus.
  • Fibre Channel. Fibre Channel is a high speed interface created for SANs that allows the transfer of data over fiber optic or copper cables. Because all the switches in a FB network can act as a single, unified switch, a Fibre Channel network is considered a fabric.
  • NVMe over FC. When the two technologies combine as NVMe over FC, they create an efficient, high-speed protocol for data transfer on solid state storage networks.

NVMe-over Fibre Channel (NVMe-FC, or NVMe over FC) uses NVMe-based message commands to transfer data and status information between a host computer and the target storage system. These commands are transmitted by being encapsulated within a Fibre Channel frame and routed to Fibre Channel switches.

When a host computer initiates an action to a target storage system via a server, the FC switch detects a Start-of-Frame (SOF) delimiter and creates an interaction between initiator and target on the Fiber Channel network. FC frames are lossless—no frames are dropped or lost in transit between the initiator and the target.

Simplified Example of an End to End request from a user diagram.
Figure 1. Simplified Example of an End to End request from a user.

The Importance of NVMe Over Fiber Channel (NVMe-FC)

NVMe-FC is reliable and efficient for supporting enterprise data centers hosting critical applications. It reduces latency, improves performance, provides better input/output processing, and handles demanding workloads very efficiently.

When used in high speed environments like data centers, NVMe-FC can make it possible to process big data, analytics, deep learning, artificial intelligence (AI), and the Internet of Things (IoT) efficiently and predictably, making it the top choice for businesses executing business intelligence operations.

NVMe over FC Use Cases

NVMe over FC is known for its high reliability and performance, making it an ideal option for any enterprise running round-the-clock mission-critical applications. For example:

  • Businesses involved in high-volume trading that need low-latency connections to maintain a competitive edge.
  • Organizations running industrial control systems that require microsecond responses to be highly responsive to received input.
  • DevOps teams that want low-latency operations to run more iterations in less time.
  • Real-time businesses that make timely decisions using large amounts of data.
  • Finance, e-commerce, and sales agents that must be responsive to customer interactions.
  • Enterprises using BI software, artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML), and advanced analytical applications.

Benefits of NVMe over FC

NVMe over FC is a highly scalable solution for enterprise organizations using solid-state storage technologies. It improves the performance of traditional protocols and exceeds that of non-FC networks—SCSI protocol performance and latency over a NVMe-FC network is better than a SCSI protocol executed on an FC ecosystem.

Overall, NVMe-FC offers the following benefits:

  • Reduced latency
  • Use of an optimized command set
  • Improved input/output operations per second (IOPs)
  • Faster and more efficient connections between Fibre Channel devices
  • Reduced CPU utilization of application servers

Because NVMe-FC provides overall performance improvements while still using traditional protocols, it allows an organization to migrate to the NVMe-based network without the urgency of replacing its current infrastructure.

Challenges of NVMe over FC

Fibre Channel networks are dedicated ecosystems, and as such, they’re far more expensive than an Ethernet network. They also require skilled personnel to maintain them due to the specialized equipment involved.

NVMe-FC also does not support multipath, a performance-enhancement technique that uses more than one physical path between a CPU and storage devices for redundancy, dynamic load balancing and reconfiguration, and automatic path management. This can be overcome by employing other network options to ensure the reliability of the NVMe-FC ecosystem remains—for example, redundant physical and logical paths to prevent single points of failure.

Bottom Line: Why Use NVME-FC

Any organization involved in real-time analytics or data processing, online transaction processing, online analytical processing, or hosting mission-critical applications can gain a competitive edge using an NVMe-FC network. NVMe-FC can be used in any industry—including healthcare, retail, finance, and airlines—for a wide range of applications from minimizing financial losses to saving lives. By providing faster speeds, reduced latency, and better reliability, it maximizes the efficiency of storage area networks and facilitates high-speed data processing.

Read Types of Enterprise Data Storage to learn more about the technologies businesses use to store the vast amounts of data on which they rely.

Don Hall
Don Hall
Don Hall is a contributing writer to Enterprise Storage Forum, where he covers data storage technology, storage hardware and software, and data networking. He worked for more than two decades as an IT Supervisor for the federal government and as IT Operations Supervisor for an IT Military Command managing programmers, cybersecurity staff, and infrastructure and networking personnel. Previously he worked as an application programmer. Don earned a B.S. in Business Information Systems from San Diego State University and has certificates in Technical Communication and web development with an emphasis in Java/Open Source. He has also had an active CompTIA Security + (ce) since 2011, and a Network +(ce) since 2015.

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