One Stop Systems, a company out of Escondido, California, just released the first PCI express 4.0 backplane, but what does this actually mean for consumers?
The short answer is, “not much”. While PCIe 4.0 boasts 64GB/s of bandwidth, twice as much as PCIe 3.0, one of the reasons that we have been stuck with 3.0 for the last seven years is that consumer graphics cards simply don’t require more bandwidth than PCI express 3.0 provides yet. Another, bigger problem facing the PCIe 4.0 standard is that PCIe 5.0 has already been developed; Similar to the difference between 3.0 and 4.0, PCIe 5.0 offers twice the bandwidth of 4.0, at 128GB/s. PCIe 5.0 devices are also expected to hit the market this year.
Perhaps, then, the more important question is, what exactly do we need PCI express 5.0 for? As above, the answer for you, the reader, is likely “we don’t”. Where the new PCI express standards will really shine is in scientific applications, artificial intelligence and machine learning, as well as enterprise solutions, for the foreseeable future.
Scientists increasingly use systems with many video cards working in unison for creating models and doing calculations on extremely large data sets, as well as in the rapidly expanding machine learning sector. Unlike the average consumer, who typically only has one or two video cards, it is entirely possible for a system with many video cards to hit a bottleneck with PCI express 3.0’s lane throughput.
Apart from scientific uses, many large corporations now collect massive amounts of information on their consumers, with data scientists on the payroll to help them determine how better to design and sell their goods. Finally, enterprises also need faster PCI express standards to support advances in mass storage – while PCI express 3.0 can certainly handle NVMe M.2 drives, it simply doesn’t have the bandwidth necessary to handle a large array of them – something that is common in servers that see a lot of use.
While we fail to see how PCIe 4.0 could possibly become mainstream, with 5.0 right on its proverbial heels, PCI-SIG, the organization in charge of defining PCI express standards, expects that 4.0 and 5.0 will coexist for a while, with consumer-grade hardware having only the “good enough” PCIe 4.0 interface, and 5.0 only being used extremely high-performance workloads. To us, this only seems like a likely end result if there is a significant price difference between the two standards.
In conclusion, average consumers, and even enthusiasts, are unlikely to actually need anything better than PCI express 3.0 for the foreseeable future. That said, hardware manufacturers are unlikely to continue using 3.0 on anything other than the cheapest of motherboards, for fear of competitors claiming that the newer standard’s double bandwidth will result in some sort of speed increase for the average user, which is highly unlikely to be seen anytime soon. In other words, if you’re making a new build soon, you could possibly end up with a board with one of the two new PCIe standards, but it certainly isn’t something you should worry about upgrading to anytime soon, if you already have a working system.