Understanding M.2 SSDs in practice and how this relates to NVMe

October 11, 2017

Modern desktop motherboards feature 'M.2' sockets (or slots) for storage in addition to some number of traditional SATA ports (and not always as many of them as I'd like). This has been confusing me lately as I plan a future PC out, so today I sat down and did some reading to understand the situation both in theory and in practice.

M.2 is more or less a connector (and mounting) standard. Like USB-C ports with their alternate mode, M.2 sockets can potentially support multiple protocols (well, bus interfaces) over the same connector. M.2 sockets are keyed to mark different varieties of what they support. Modern motherboards using M.2 sockets for storage are going to be M.2 with M keying, which potentially supports SATA and PCIe x4 (and SMBus).

M.2 SSDs use either SATA or NVMe as their interface, and generally are M keyed these days. My impression is that M.2 NVMe SSDs cost a bit more than similar M.2 SATA SSDs, but can perform better (perhaps much better). A M.2 SATA SSD requires a M.2 socket that supports SATA; a M.2 NVMe SSD requires a PCIe (x4) capable M.2 socket. Actual motherboards with M.2 sockets don't necessarily support both SATA and PCIe x4 on all of their M.2 sockets. In particular, it seems common to have one M.2 socket that supports both and then a second M.2 socket that only supports PCIe x4, not SATA.

(The corollary is that if you want to have two more or less identical M.2 SSDs in the same motherboard, you generally need them to be M.2 NVMe SSDs. You can probably find a motherboard that has two M.2 sockets that support SATA, but you're going to have a more limited selection.)

On current desktop motherboards, it seems to be very common to not be able to use all of the board's M.2 sockets, SATA ports, and PCIe card slots at once. One or more M.2 SATA ports often overlap with normal SATA ports, while one or more M.2 PCIe x4 can overlap with either normal SATA ports or with a PCIe card slot. The specific overlaps vary between motherboards and don't seem to be purely determined by the Intel or AMD chipset and CPU being used.

(Some of the limitations do seem to be due to the CPU and the chipset, because of a limited supply of PCIe lanes. I don't know enough about PCIe lane topology to fully understand this, although I know more than I did when I started writing this entry.)

The ASUS PRIME Z370-A is typical of what I'm seeing in current desktop motherboards. It has two M.2 sockets, the first with both SATA and PCIE x4 and the second with just PCIe x4. The first socket's SATA steals the regular 'SATA 1' port, but its PCIe x4 is unshared and doesn't conflict with anything. The second socket steals two SATA ports (5 and 6) in PCIe x4 mode but can also run in PCIe x2 mode, which leaves those SATA ports active. So if you only want one NVMe SSD, you get 6 SATA port; if you want one M.2 SATA SSD, you're left with 5 SATA ports; and if you want two M.2 NVMe SSDs (at full speed), you're left with 4 regular SATA ports. The whole thing is rather confusing, and also tedious if you're trying to work out whether a particular current or future disk configuration is possible.

Since I use disks in mirrored pairs, I'm only interested in motherboards with two or more M.2 PCIe (x4) capable sockets. M.2 SATA support is mostly irrelevant to me; if I upgrade from my current SSD (and HD) setup to M.2 drives, it will be to NVMe SSDs.

(You can also get PCIe cards that are PCIe to some number of M.2 PCIe sockets, but obviously they're going to need to go into one of the PCIe slots with lots of PCIe lanes.)

Written on 11 October 2017.
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Last modified: Wed Oct 11 02:17:13 2017
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