Compatibility Issues

One of the major new features of Intel's Tiger Lake mobile processors is support for PCIe 4.0 lanes coming directly off the CPU. The chipset's PCIe lanes are still limited to PCIe 3.0 speeds, but SSDs or a discrete GPU can now get twice the bandwidth.

This change is relevant because of how Intel's Optane Memory caching software interacts with the system's hardware and firmware. Earlier generations of Optane Memory and Intel's NVMe RAID solutions for their consumer platforms all relied on the NVMe SSDs being attached through the chipset. They used an ugly hack to hide NVMe devices from standard NVMe driver software and make them accessible only through the chipset's SATA controller, where only Intel's drivers could find them. Using chipset-attached NVMe devices with standard NVMe drivers as included in operating systems like Windows or Linux required changing the system's BIOS settings to put the SATA controller in AHCI mode rather than RAID/RST mode. Most of the PC OEMs who didn't provide that BIOS option were eventually shamed into adding it, or only activating this NVMe remapping mode when an Optane Memory device is installed.

For Tiger Lake and CPU-attached NVMe drives, Intel has brought over a feature from their server and workstation platforms. The Intel Volume Management Device (VMD) is a feature of the CPU's PCIe root complex. VMD leaves NVMe devices visible as proper PCIe devices, but enumerated in a separate PCI domain from all the other devices in the system. In the server space, this is a clear improvement as it made it easier to handle error containment and hotplug in the driver without involving the motherboard firmware, and VMD was used as the foundation for Intel's Virtual RAID on CPU (VROC) NVMe software RAID on those platforms. In the client space, VMD still accomplishes Intel's goal of ensuring that the standard Windows NVMe driver can't find the NVMe drive, leaving it available for Intel's drivers to manage.

Unfortunately, this switch seems to mean we're going through another round of compatibility headaches with missing BIOS options to disable the new functionality. It's not currently possible to do a clean install of Windows 10 onto these machines without providing an Intel VMD driver at the beginning of the installation process. Without it, Windows simply cannot detect the NVMe SSD in the CPU-attached M.2 slot. As a result, all of the Windows-based benchmark results in this review were using the Intel RST drivers (except for the Enmotus FuzeDrive SSD, which has its own driver). Normally we don't bother with vendor-specific drivers and stick with Microsoft's NVMe driver included with Windows, but that wasn't an option for this review.

We had planned to include a direct comparison of Intel's Optane Memory H20 against the Enmotus FuzeDrive P200 SSD, but Intel's VMD+RST situation on Tiger Lake prevents the Enmotus drivers from properly detecting the FuzeDrive SSD. On most platforms, installing the FuzeDrive SSD will cause Windows Update to fetch the Enmotus drivers and associate them with that particular NVMe device. Their Fuzion application can then be downloaded from the Microsoft Store to configure the tiering. Instead, on this Tiger Lake notebook, the Fuzion application reports that no FuzeDrive SSD is installed even when the FuzeDrive SSD is the only storage device in the system. It's not entirely clear whether the Intel VMD drivers merely prevent the FuzeDrive software from correctly detecting the drive as one of their own and unlocking the tiering capability, or if there's a more fundamental conflict between the Intel VMD and Enmotus NVMe drivers that prevents them from both being active for the same device. We suspect the latter.

Ultimately, this mess is caused by a combination of Intel and Enmotus wanting to keep their storage software functionality locked to their hardware (though Enmotus also sells their software independently), and Microsoft's inability to provide a clean framework for layering storage drivers the way Linux can (while allowing for the hardware lock-in these vendors demand). Neither of these reasons is sufficient justification for shipping such convoluted "solutions" to end users. It's especially disappointing to see that Intel's new and improved method for supporting Optane Memory caching now breaks a competitor's solution even when the Optane Memory hardware is removed from the system. The various software implementations of storage caching, tiering, RAID, and encryption available in the market are powerful tools, but they're at their best when they can be used together. Intel and Microsoft need to step up and address this situation, or attempts at innovation in this space will continue to be stifled by unnecessary complexity that makes these storage systems fragile and frustrating.

An Alternative: Enmotus FuzeDrive SSD Application Benchmarks and IO Traces
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  • haukionkannel - Wednesday, May 19, 2021 - link

    All ”highend” ssd are soon gonna be qlc and middle and low range will go plc…
    So just wait the things to get even worse!
  • edzieba - Friday, May 21, 2021 - link

    Ah, the QLC brigade is here, with the same Dire Warnings Of Horrible Doom that previously fell flat for MLC and TLC, but THIS time will totally come true (or we'll cross out the Q and put P and protest against the evils of PLC next year!).
  • kepstin - Tuesday, May 18, 2021 - link

    If you were to somehow get one of these Intel drives and plug it into an unsupported system, will it just show up as 2 separate NVMe drives? Would you be able to use it with hardware agnostic caching solutions like PrimoCache on Windows or bcache/dm-cache on Linux?
  • drexnx - Tuesday, May 18, 2021 - link

    sounds like the host system just sees it as a 32gb optane SSD
  • Billy Tallis - Tuesday, May 18, 2021 - link

    Depends on what the host system is, and what kind of slot. Only the supported Intel systems can initialize PCIe links to both sides. For the H10 review, I made a chart of all the systems I'd tried:

    If the slot is only PCIe x1 or x2, you get the NAND. If it's x4, you might get the NAND or you might get the 3DXP.
  • kepstin - Tuesday, May 18, 2021 - link

    Ah, so there's no PCIe bridge/switch on the device itself? I guess they're relying on the upstream bridge of the M.2 slot supporting bifurcating the 4× link into 2×/2×.
  • Billy Tallis - Tuesday, May 18, 2021 - link

    Correct. The H10 and H20 rely on upstream port bifurcation support. I think there's also a proprietary element to it, but bifurcation down to x2 links is less widely supported than bifurcation down to x4 links anyways.

    A PCIe switch would have been nice, but wouldn't fit. And this product line isn't important enough for Intel to make a big new custom ASIC for, either a SSD controller that can speak to both 3DXP and QLC, or adding PCIe switch/passthrough support to one of the two controllers.
  • Kurosaki - Tuesday, May 18, 2021 - link

    Maybe next gen then?...
  • Tomatotech - Tuesday, May 18, 2021 - link

    The H20 is just a placeholder while the Optane team treads water and begs the rest of Intel to let them release a proper drive. This H20 looks like a greyhound with bricks tied to its neck. Absolutely lovely latency and random 4K performance would be a credit to any high-end workstation. But it's crippled by a shit implementation.

    Apple was doing tiered drive storage nearly 10 years ago with their Fusion drives, and as the Enmotus tiered drive shows, it can do amazing things. This is how the H20 should be set up.

    I say the H20 is treading water; it should be on PCIe 4.0 but because of Intel's shenanigans with PCIe 4.0 the Optane team are crippled and can't release this drive with the backing support it needs. Hopefully the next model, maybe the H30, will have PCIe 4.0 and then it'll finally be a decent overall drive.

    Probably not, given the sad history of Intel shooting Optane in the foot. They could have released this drive several years ago, and it would have been excellent then, but normal NAND drives are improving all the time and it's just too little, too late.
  • Spunjji - Wednesday, May 19, 2021 - link

    "a greyhound with bricks tied to its neck" - succinct. 👍

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