The Ultimate Guide to PCIe (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express)


In addition to standard motherboard components, computers often need to be equipped with other parts and components to achieve the desired functionality.

In this blog, you’ll learn more about what PCIe is, the different components, and how it helps enhance a computer’s capabilities to maximize efficiency at the edge.

What is PCIe?

PCIe, or peripheral component interconnect express, is an interface standard for connecting high-speed input output (HSIO) components.

Every high-performance computer motherboard has a number of PCIe slots you can use to add GPUs, RAID cards, WiFi cards, or SSD (solid-state drive) add-on cards. 

The primary benefits of PCIe are that it offers higher bandwidth, faster speed, lower latency, and more utility. 

The number of PCIe slots depends upon the type of motherboard that you buy. 

How do PCIe slots work?

PCIe slots come in different physical configurations: x1, x4, x8, and x16. The number after x tells you how many lanes (how data travels to and from the PCIe card–more on that later) that the PCIe slot has.

For example, a PCIe x1 slot has one lane and can move data at one bit per cycle. A PCIe x2 slot has two lanes and can move data at two bits per cycle.

Let’s take a look at the different types of slots:

  1. PCIe x1: This is the smallest expansion slot, which is good for almost any other cards like a sound card, average 1G network adapters like wireless cards, video capture cards, and USB expansion cards. 
  2. PCIe x4: This slot has four PCIe lanes, and it also has the same size as an x16 slot. It is often used for single M.2 NVMe SSD expansion cards; it is also used for SATA 3 expansion cards and RAID controllers, high-speed 10G network adapters, and 4K video capture cards. 
  3. PCIe x8: This slot has the same size as an x16 slot but half the PCIe Lanes. This is also commonly used for graphics cards or for M.2 NVMe SSD expansion cards. 
  4. PCIe x16: This slot is used for cards that require a high bandwidth like graphics cards; these are the largest slots on the motherboard.

 

PCIe configurations

Source: duropc.com. PCIe slots come in different physical configurations: x1, x4, x8, and x16.

By far, the most popular set up is PCIe x16, as most GPUs require it to operate at their full potential.

There are two components to a PCIe slot: mechanical (cards) and electrical (lanes). For instance, you can have a slot that is x16 mechanical that is x8 electrical, meaning that you can house 16 cards, but it can only support 8 lanes which may lead to lower performance. 

Additionally, you can insert x8 mechanical into an x8 mechanical and x4 electrical for half the performance. 

What is a PCIe card?

A PCIe card or expansion card is just another name for hardware that can be added to your device through PCIe slots. 

What is a PCIe lane?

PCIe lanes are the physical link between the PCIe-supported device and the processor/chipset. 

PCIe lanes consist of two pairs of copper wires, typically known as traces, that run though the motherboard, connecting the PCIe-enabled device to either the processor or motherboard chipset.

Think of a PCIe lane as a highway where the vehicles–or in this case, data–travel in both directions at the same time.

Up to 32 of these bidirectional PCIe lanes can be allotted to a single device, enabling it to achieve a high-bandwidth, low-latency transfer of data. 

PCIe Lanes

Source: boxx.comPCIe lanes are the physical link between the PCIe-supported device and the processor/chipset. 

The different variations of PCIe

PCIe standard currently comes in five different generations: PCIe 1.0, PCIe 2.0, PCIe 3.0, PCIe 4.0, and PCIe 5.0. The bandwidth doubles with each generation. 

PCIe 6.0 is set for release either by the end of 2022 or early 2023. 

Below is a chart comparing the capabilities of the different generations of PCIe: 

Different PCIe GenerationsSource: tomshardware.com. PCIe currently comes in PCIe 1.0, PCIe 2.0, PCIe 3.0, PCIe 4.0, and PCIe 5.0. The bandwidth doubles with each generation. 

What can you plug into PCIe slots? 

There are many devices that can be added into PCIe slots: 

GPUs (Graphics Processing Units) 

GPUs are one of the most common components to be plugged into PCIe slots. These are processing modules that allow all the visuals to be produced; they are also equipped with enhanced artificial intelligence capabilities to enhance data analysis and deliver real-time insights. 

The only way to add a GPU is via a PCIe x16 slot because, as mentioned previously, the majority of GPUs are designed to utilize 16 PCIe lanes, and they require the full PCIe x16 slot to function at their best capacity.

GPUs

GPUs are one of the most common components to be plugged into PCIe slots.

Ethernet Network Cards (NIC cards) 

While most motherboards come with Ethernet support, older motherboards may not have it. 

For those older motherboards, then, it would be wise to invest in ethernet network cards, or NIC cards

On mainstream motherboards, you only get average gigabit network speeds. With ethernet network cards, you get 10G or faster speeds. 

Ethernet network cards

For older motherboards, it would be wise to invest in ethernet network cards, or NIC cards. 

SATA Expansion Cards

PCIe slots can also be used to increase the storage capacity of your system. If you have a limited amount of SATA ports on your motherboard for connecting SATA hard drives, you may need a PCIe SATA expansion card. 

The size of the SATA expansion card and the type of slot it requires depends on factors like how many SATA slots it has and whether it has a RAID controller or not. 

SATA expansion cards are available for PCIe x1, x4, and x8 slots. 

SATA Expansion Cards

Source: startech.com. If you have a limited amount of SATA ports on your motherboard for connecting SATA hard drives, you may need a PCIe SATA expansion card. 

M.2 NVMe Expansion Cards

PCIe NVMe SSD are the fastest hard drives available. An average SATA 3 spinning hard disk drive can reach speeds of only 200 MB/s in ideal conditions.

Many newer motherboards do come with at least one NVMe M.2 slot, but if your motherboard lacks the M.2 slot, or if you want to add another NVMe SSD to your system, then you can invest in an NVMe SSD expansion card. 

Note that each M.2 NVMe slot requires 4 PCIe lanes, and as such, the smallest one available requires a x4 PCIe slot. 

NVMe expansion cards

Source: newegg.com. If your motherboard lacks the M.2 slot, or if you want to add another NVMe SSD to your system, then you can invest in an NVMe SSD expansion card. 

Riser cards

Riser cards are essentially PCIe port splitters. Just like port expansion cards, PCIe riser cards add extra ports to your PC. The ports they add, however, are PCIe slots. 

Riser cards

Riser cards add on PCIe slots. 

PCIe and Trenton Systems

By enabling motherboards to connect with a computer’s most critical components, PCIe helps ensure proper functionality for a variety of technical and performance specifications. 

At Trenton, our team of engineers work tirelessly developing customized motherboards with the latest PCIe to provide our customers with numerous customization and upgrade options.  

We can add NVIDIA GPUs onto our motherboards via PCIe x16 slots. Our 3U BAM, for example, has double-spaced x16 slots for improved incorporation of double-wide GPUs.

We can also integrate our solutions with NIC cards via PCIe to enhance networking, storage, and processing capabilities. 

In addition, our PCIe Expansion Kit allows customers to add another 18 PCIe slots to any open PCIe x16 slot, making room for functions beyond preloaded features like graphics and storage. 

With a variety of configurations and compatible add-ons, PCIe strengthens a computer’s capabilities to maximize bandwidth and reduce latency, ensuring optimal performance in real-time. 





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