NVM Express over Fabrics

Any technologist who’s read, let alone used NVM Express (NVMe), is pretty enthusiastic about it’s capabilities and if it was not for availability and financial restrictions we’d all have at least a couple in our home systems and labs. Let Windows Server 2016 nested virtualization come, woehoe!


It seems to succeed very well in making sure the host can keep up with the performance (low latencies, high throughput) delivered by SSD drives, better than our current interfaces. Today you can drop them into your workstation or server and get going. They’ll give your home lab stellar storage performance today and Microsoft publicly talked publicly about them being supported in Storage Spaces Direct in Windows Server 2016 at Ignite 2015. But there is more to come.

Many of us are very happy with future visions on how PCIe will dislodge SAS/SATA as the preferred SSD interface. This might seem feasible for local storage right now and it can be leveraged for caching or with local PCIe RAID controllers which if shared enable Cluster in a Box (CiB) scenarios. But how to deal with this in an actual storage array, what if we want to size this to a larger scale? There are no “PCIe JBODS”. So what does one do? Well, how did we do it in the past with FC? We created a fabric. Below we see several local & remote NVMe architectures even hybrid ones with traditional SAS.


That’s exactly what NVM Express Inc. is doing, creating the specs for a fabric. This holds the promise to achieve superior results due to the elimination of SCSI translation which reduces latency significantly by delivering NVMe end to end. Not only that but we also see the following efforts in the NVM Express Specification 1.2 to give it enterprise grade capabilities beyond pure performance.

  • Enhanced status reporting
  • Expanded capabilities including live firmware updates

There have been some early demos of NVMe over Fabrics mainly focusing on the “remote” performance. While local NVMe SSDs have the edge on absolute IOPS the difference with NVMe over a fabric is not significant. The reduction in latency is measured in < 10 µs,so that’s good news. The fabric leverages RDMA (yes, yet another reason that my time spending with this technology has been a useful investment). This can be Infiniband, RoCE or iWarp. There’s also the new kid on the block “Intel Omni Scale”  (even if their early demo used iWARP). There’s also a Mellanox RoCE demo.


Now with NVMe SSD disk speeds it seems that the writing is on the wall that ever better fabric performance will be needed to support the tremendous throughput this evolution of storage can deliver. RDMA seems poised for success in regards to this. Now, yes, strictly speaking the NVMe traffic does not require RDMA but let’s just say I don’t see anyone building it without. I also think this means even iWarp fabrics will use DCB (PFC) to make sure we have a lossless network. The amount of traffics will be immense and why not optimize for the best possible performance? I hold the opinion this is beneficial for east-west traffic today in larger environments, especially when in converged networks. Unless the Intel® Omni-Path Architecture blows everyone else away that is Smile. Too early to tell.

Now does this dictate the total and absolute obsolescence of iSCSI and FC? No. There is no reason why a NVMe Fabrics storage solution cannot offer storage to hosts via FC, iSCSI, SMB 3, NFS, FCoE, … They, potentially could even offer all RDMA flavors like iWarp, RoCE or Infiniband to the hosts so you won’t lose your prior investments or get locked into one flavor of RDMA. I have no magic ball so I cannot tell you if this will happen. What I do now that when it comes to MPIO versus multichannel for load balancing and even failover and recovery, multichannel does a (far?) superior job in my honest opinion even when the hypervisor uses separate sessions per virtual machine to achieve better load balancing over iSCSI or the like. So perhaps storage vendors will finally deliver full SMB 3 support in their stacks … if not, well we’ll just abstract your storage way with SOFS. Your loss.  Anyway, I digress. One thing I do know is that I’ll keep a keen eye on what Microsoft is doing in this space, especially in regards to Windows Server 2016 capabilities & scalabilities. It’s time to up the level on scalability & support for newer state of the art technologies once again. It will ensure we get to run our stack on the very best hardware for years to come.

SMB Direct: Choosing A Flavor

I often get asked what to buy for implementing SMB Direct. It’s a non trivial question actually and I’m not an expert, nor do I play one on TV.  All joking aside, it’s a classical consulting answer: it depends. I don’t do free consulting in a blog post, even if that was possible, as there are many factors such as the characteristics and futures of your organization. There’s also a lot of FUD & marketing flying around. Basically in real life you only have two vendors: Cheslio (iWarp) and Mellanox (Roce/Infiniband). Hard to say which one is best. You make the best choice for your company and you live with it.

There is talk about other vendors joining the SMB Direct market. But it seems to be taking a while. This is not that strange. I’ve understood that in the early days of this century iWarp got a pretty bad reputation due to the many issues around it. Apparently offloading the TCP/IP stack to the NIC, which is what iWarp does is not an easy endeavor. Intel had some old Net card a couple of years ago but has gotten out of the game. Perhaps they’ll step back in but that might very well take a couple of years.

Other vendors like Broadcom, Emulex & QLogic might be working on solutions but I’m not holding my breath. Broadcom has DCB and has been hinting at RDMA in it’s NICs for many years but as of the writing of this post there is nothing functional out there yet. But bar the slowness (is complexity slowing the process?) it will be very interesting to see what they’ll choose: RoCE or iWarp. That choice might be the most public statement we’ll ever see about what technology seems like the best bet for these companies. But be careful, I have seen technology choices based on working/living with design choices at at another level due to constrictions in hardware & software that are no longer true today. So don’t just do blindly what others do.

Infiniband will remain a bit more of a niche I think and my guess is that RoCE is the big bet of Mellanox for the long term. 10Gbps and higher Ethernet switches are sold to everyone in the world. Infiniband, not so much. Does that make it a bad choice? Nope, it all depends. Just like FC is not a bad choice for everyone today, it depends.

Your options today

The options you have today to do SMB Direct are rather limited and bound to the different flavors and their vendor. Yes vendor not vendors.

  1. iWarp: Chelsio
  2. RoCE: Mellanox (v2 of RoCE has brought routability into the game, which counters one of iWarps biggest advantages, next to operational ease but the no fuss about DCB story might not be 100% correct, the question is if this matters, after all many people do well with iSCSI which is easy but has performance limits).
  3. Infiniband: Mellanox (Qlogic was the only other remaining one, but Intel bought it form them. I have never ever seen Intel Infiniband in the wild.

Note: You can do iWarp (and even RoCE in theory) without DCB but in all realistic high traffic situations you’ll want to implement PFC to keep the experience and results good under load. Especially the ports connecting to the SOFS nodes could other wise potentially drop packets. iWarp, being TCP/IP, will handle dropped packets but possibly at the cost of deteriorated performance. With RoCE you’re basically toast if you lose packets, it should be losses. I’m not too convinced that pure offloaded TCP/IP scales. Let’s face it, what was the big deal about lossless iSCSI => DCB Smile I would really love to see Demartek testing these things out for us.

If you have a smaller environment, no need for routing and minimal politics I have seen companies select Infiniband which per Gbps is very cheap. Lots of people have chosen iWarp due to it simplicity (which they heavily market) and routability. The popularity however has dropped due to prices hikes that came with increased demand and no competition. RoCE  is popular (I see it the most) and affordable but for this one you MUST do at least PFC. DCB support on switches is not an issue, even budget friendly DELL PowerConnect N4000 series supports it as did it’s predecessor the PC8100 series. Meaning if you have bought switches in the past 24 months and did your home work you’re good to go. Are routability and distance important? Well perhaps not that much today but as the trend in networking is heading for layer 3 down to the rack which will be more acceptable when we see a lot of the workload goodness in hypervisors (Live Migration, vMotion,yes there is work being done on that) being lit up in layer 3 it might become a key feature.

Adventures In RDMA – The RoCE Path Over DCB To Windows Server 2012 R2 SMB 3.0 Glory


On gloomy day, it was dark, grey and cold, we gave battle with RoCE & DCB (PFC/ETS). The fight was a long one, the battle field uncharted and we had only our veteran attitude towards adversity to guide us through the switch configurations. It seemed that no man had gone that far to the edges of the Windows Server 2012 empire. And when it came to RoCE & DCB meets Didier, I needed to show it that it had been conquered and was remembered of a quote in Gladiator:

Quintus: People RoCE/DCB configs should know when they are conquered.
Maximus: Would you, Quintus? Would I?


After many, many lonely & unsuccessful hours dealing with Performance monitor, switch configurations, reloads, firmware, drivers & Windows we got results:

… “it’s working” … “holey s* look at those numbers” …

On that dark day in a scarcely illuminated room, in the faint glare of the monitors even the CLI  of the switches in PUTTY felt like a grim cold place. But all that changed at as the impressive results brightened up the day and made all efforts seem worthwhile. “Didier Victor” I thought as I looked away from the screen, ‘”Once more”.image

But it has been a hard won victory. And should you fight this battle? We’ll let’s discuss this a bit now we’ve got your attention. RDMA is a learning process for many of us and neither Infiniband,  iWARP or RoCE are the one that need to win at this game. It’s you, via the knowledge you’ll gain working with RDMA technologies.

SMB Direct or SMB over RDMA comes in flavors

Infiniband (Mellanox)

That’s been here for a while. Has high cost associated (depends on where you come from) and also has a psychological barrier to it. Try discussing buying 10Gbps versus Infiniband with semi technical managerial types. You’ll know what I mean.

Deploying Windows Server 2012 with SMB Direct (SMB over RDMA) and the Mellanox ConnectX-2/ConnectX-3 using InfiniBand – Step by Step

iWARP (Chelsio / Intel)

RDMA but it’s TCP/IP offloaded to the card. It can leverage DCB but doesn’t require it.

Deploying Windows Server 2012 with SMB Direct (SMB over RDMA) and the Chelsio T4 cards using iWARP – Step by Step

RoCE (Mellanox)

“Infiniband over Ethernet” > so you “NEED” (no not a real hard requirement) DBC with PFC/ETS (DCBx can be handy) for it to work best. No need for Congestion Notification as it’s for TCP/IP but could be nice with iWARP (see above). Do note that you’ll need to configure your switches for DCB & that’s highly dependent on the vendor & even type of switches.

Deploying Windows Server 2012 with SMB Direct (SMB over RDMA) and the Mellanox ConnectX-3 using 10GbE/40GbE RoCE – Step by Step

Here’s an older overview of RDMA flavor’s pros & cons:image

Please see Jose Barreto’s excellent work on explaining SMB 3.0 over RDMA in his presentations at SNIA, TechEd and on his blog.

While I have heard of two people I have in my network working with Infiniband for SMB Direct and Windows Server 2012 (R2) most of us are doing 10Gbps. Pricing for Infiniband has a bad reputation. Not because Infiniband is super costly compared to 10/40Gbps (I’m told by most people who ask quotes are positively surprised) but when you can’t afford a Porsche you’re not shopping for a Ferrari either.  Especially not when a mid size sedan will serve al of your needs above and beyond the call of duty. On top of that you might have bought all that nice “converged network ready” 10Gbps gear some years ago. Some of us may be working towards 40Gbps but most are 10Gbps shops. My 40Gbps is “limited” to the inter links & uplinks. Meaning that we either go for iWarp or RoCE.


Which one is best of those two? Well, as the line is drawn between vendors. RoCE today equals Mellanox (yes the Infiniband vendor, RoCE is sometimes called “Infiniband on layer 4 over Ethernet layer 2”) and iWarp means Chelsio or Intel (their cards look a bit old in the teeth however).

You’ll find comparisons by both vendors claiming superiority for varied reasons. Here’s the Mellanox side http://www.mellanox.com/pdf/whitepapers/WP_RoCE_vs_iWARP.pdf & here’s Chelsio’s take http://www.chelsio.com/roce/ & http://www.moderntech.com.hk/sites/default/files/whitepaper/V09_iWAR_Summary_WP_0.pdf. It’s good to look at your needs and map them. But I cannot declare a winner. I did notice that at least one vendor of SOFS/CiB uses iWarp. Is that a statement? And if so about what? Price? Easy of use? Perfomance/Cost?

What I do find is that Chelsio is really hacking into RoCE as you can see here http://www.chelsio.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/RoCE-The-Grand-Experiment1.pdf, http://www.chelsio.com/roce-whitepaper/, http://www.chelsio.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/RoCE-FAQ-1204121.pdf So that begs the question are the right or are the scared of RoCE, as the Infiniband boys are out to eat their lunch?

My take on this for now

iWarp is way easier to get started. That’s for sure. RoCE  is firmware sensitive (NIC, Switches), driver sensitive (NIC). Configuring your switches (DCB) now is usually followed by a rebooting that switch (so you might not do that so easily in production and depending on where in the stack those switches live you really need to Force10 VLT or Cisco vPC, Arista MLAG  or a independent redundant switches to get away with it. RoCE loves green field. Stacking I hear you say? I don’t like stacking on that spot of the stack as firmware updates will get you to suffer through a single point of failure.

Disclaimer: RoCE in itself does not  DEMAND/REQUIRE DCB but the consensus is that it will work better, especially under heavy load. Weather SMB Direct over RoCE requires DCB is another question. For all practical purposes I’m working from the prerequisite it does for a production environment. But as you can do RoCE RDMA between to NIC with no DCB switch in between this indicates that the hard requirement for DCB is not there. Mind you not using DCB might not be smart in regards to QoS & error handling (no TCP/IP goodness handling this for you). But I’m no expert on this subject. Paul Grun however is and he’s involved with RoCE at  https://www.openfabrics.org/component/search/?searchword=Paul+grun&ordering=&searchphrase=all They tend to know their stuff. Read some of the comments below this article and you’ll know a lot http://www.hpcwire.com/hpcwire/2010-04-22/roce_an_ethernet-infiniband_love_story.html But PFC isn’t Walhalla either and some claim you can just forget about it and build non blocking networks. I guess you could if your pockets are deep enough Smile. And you might go a very long way without the need for RDMA. Many do … and when you talk to some network people & vendors they can’t agree either as everyone is on the same learning curve but from a different perspective. There is no one size fits all & it all depends.

iWarp doesn’t require DCB so you can get away with cheaper switches. Or, not so cheap switches that don’t support DCB (choose wisely). So cheaper switches is probably true on the low end. But, even very economically priced switches from DELL have good DCB support. Some other vendors who are more expensive don’t.

DCB is uncharted terrain for SMB Direct purposes & new to many for us. So if you want to do RDMA the easy way  … go iWARP. As said, the use of DCB for PFC/ETS is not mandatory in that case, you’ll get great results and it’s easy.  Mind you, you’ll still be dabbling with DCB if you want to do lossless magic in the switches Smile. Why you say? Well, that “converged network” story makes it kind of interesting to do so and PFC, DCBx/TLV is generic and can be leveraged for other things than iSCSI or FCoE.  And for all practical purposes SMB 3.0 with SMB Direct is a storage protocol since Windows Server 2012 made it so (CSV). Or do you do DCB for iSCSI/FCoE & iWarp for SMB Direct? After all there’s only 2 lossless queues to be had. But hey how many do you need? Choices, choices and no vast pool of experienced practitioners yet.

iWARP routes, it’s not bound by a single Ethernet broadcast domain. That could be useful info depending on your environment & needs. I’ll note that I leverage RDMA for East-West traffic, not north south & as such this could not be an issue. The time that I do “Shared Nothing Live Migration" from on premise to the cloud has not arrived yet.

The Mellanox cards in my neck of the woods were 35% cheaper than Chelsio (SFP+)

What about the scalability? “iWarp doesn’t scale that well” is stated left and right but I think that might often be based on older information. Chelsio makes a strong case for iWARP scalability. Especially when it comes to long distances, multiple hops & routing.

Again, your mileage may vary. But for “the smaller environments” who want to leverage RDMA with SMB 3.0 I’d say that iWarp is the easiest path to go & will do just fine. Now if you’re already into lossless Ethernet for iSCSI or working with FCoE you might have all the hardware you need & the experience to deal with DCB. The latter might not always be true however. Most people have Lossless Ethernet for iSCSI or FCoE set up by the vendor or consultants who’ll use well defined step by step guides. These do not exist for the RoCE variant of SMB 3.0 over RDMA.

The case for RoCE can be made as well.  Some claim that high volume of connections consumes memory when using iWARP and TCP’s flow and reliability controls are less suited for large-scale datacenters & cloud deployments due to performance issues. Where iWARP does not know multicast, RoCE does and that could be important to you.

So why did I or still do RoCE?

So why did I walk the walk? Basically because just talking the talk isn’t enough. We considered it an investment in our education. DCB is not going away (the abstraction isn’t their yet and won’t be for a while) and we need to gain knowledge of it to both handle it and make informed decisions. By the way once you go to lossless you might leverage DCB/PFC with iWarp as well just like you do for iSCSI to make it lossless (leveraging DCBx/TLV). Keep in mind that DCB is key in converged networking and as such deserves your attention. That’s why I chose not to avoid it but gave battle. DCB is all over the place when it comes to converged networking (iSCSI, FCoE), so we need to learn the good, the bad and the ugly. Until that day that perhaps, the hardware stack is that good, powerful & has so much bandwidth TCP/IP never needs it built in protection for packet loss. Hmmmmmm, I remember people saying that about 10Gbps, but then they wanted to send everything over 2*10Gbps pipes and it becomes an issue again?

It’s early days yet but you have to give credit to Microsoft for getting RDMA/DCB on the radar screen of the worlds virtualization & storage admins than ever before. It’s not a well established segment yet and it will be interesting to see how this all turns out. I do know that now that I’ve figured out a thing or two about RoCE, I won’t be intimidated & won’t make choices out of fear. And do remember that if you have plenty of idle CPU cycles & 10Gbps you might not even need RDMA. The value for me and my employers is the knowledge gained. DCB has it’s role to play but we’ll leverage iWARP or RoCE without a preference. Today you have 2 choices. RoCE is the newer one while iWarp has been around longer and both have avid proponents it seems.

I know one thing. If you need or want RDMA in any existing 10Gbps environment with minimal effort & no risk to existing switch infrastructure, you’ll use iWarp it seems.


You sit there staring at a truckload of VMs with 120GB of memory assigned in total being evacuated in +/- 70 seconds seconds, while doing a Shared Nothing Live Migration between the same hosts and without consuming CPU load …  and have DCB for SMB 3.0 running on your switches … Yes!


Remember, “What we do in life, echo’s in eternity” Winking smile You might think now that I’m a bit nutty, but I assure you that in my quest to find someone who had hands on experience configuring DCB on switches for SMB Direct with RoCE I had to turn to myself as no one seems to have done it.  I’ll be sharing more info on our setup and configurations in the future. Once you wrap your head around the concepts, you understand why things are done and how. There in lies the value for me.

SMB Direct RoCE Does Not Work Without DCB/PFC


SMB Direct RoCE Does Not Work Without DCB/PFC. “Yes”, you say, “we know, this is well documented. Thank you.” but before you sign of hear me out.

Recently I plugged to RoCE cards into some test servers and linked them to a couple of 10Gbps switches. I did some quick large file copy testing and to my big surprise RDMA kicked in with stellar performance even before I had installed the DCB feature, let alone configure it. So what’s the deal here. Does it work without DCB? Does the card fail back to iWarp? Highly unlikely. I was expecting it to fall back to plain vanilla 10Gbps and not being used at all but it was. A short shout out to Jose Barreto to discuss this helped clarify this.

DCB/PFC is a requirement RoCE

The more busy the network gets the faster the performance will drop. Now in our test scenario we had two servers  for a total of 4 RoCE ports on the network consisting of a beefy 48 port 10Gbps switches. So we didn’t see the negative results of this here.

DCB (Data Center Bridging) and Priority Flow Control are considered a requirement for any kind of RoCE deployment. RDMA with RoCE operates at the Ethernet layer. That means there is no overhead from TCP/IP, which is great for performance. This is the reason you want to use RDMA actually. It also means it’s left on it’s own to deal with Ethernet-level collisions and errors. For that it needs DCB/PFC other wise you’ll run into performance issues due to a ton of retries at the higher network layers.

The reason that iWarp doesn’t require DCB/PCF is that it works at the TCP/IP level also offloaded by using a TCP/IP stack on the NIC instead of the OS. So errors are handled by TCP/IP at a cost: iWarp results in the same benefits as RoCE but it doesn’t scale that well. Not that iWarp performance is lousy, far form! Mind you, for bandwidth management reasons,you’d be better of using DCB or some form of QoS as well.


So no, not configuring  DCB on your servers and the switches isn’t an option, but apparently it isn’t blocked either so beware of this. It might appear to be working fine but it’s a bad idea. Also don’t think it defaults back to iWarp mode, it doesn’t, as one card does one thing not both. There is no shortcut. RoCE RDMA does not work error free out of the box so you do have the install the DCB feature and configure it together with the switches.