Intel Optane – Bringing 3D XPoint Memory to Market

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.

Intel’s new Optane SSD DC P4800X Series offerings are an interesting example of how complex technologies come to market. Interesting in one sense because of the potential value Intel’s new SSD solutions offer business customers and data center applications and workloads.

But also interesting is the somewhat circuitous road that Intel and its partner Micron traversed for the nearly two years it took to arrive here. In July 2015, the pair announced plans to develop 3D XPoint (pronounced: three dee cross point), a non-volatile memory (NVM) technology that would result in solutions that were “1,000X faster than flash with up to 1,000X flash’s endurance and 10X denser than conventional memory.”

How did they do? Like many or even most new technologies, the Optane SSD DC P4800X offerings don’t quite reach their developers’ original targets. However, they do deliver significant improvements over past solutions and benefits that should attract enterprise customers. As a result, Optane should help Intel achieve its larger goal: to fundamentally transform storage and memory architectures.

Memory’s promise and problems

Memory technologies have essentially transformed data center solutions and markets due to two issues: 1) falling prices of conventional DRAM (volatile memory) that make it more financially feasible to use it to speed applications and workloads, including in-memory databases, and 2) substantial performance boosts that NAND flash solid state drives (SSDs) deliver to data storage operations and processes.

However, the promise of commercial memory technologies is offset by significant problems. Yes, DRAM is cheaper than ever before, but it still costs more than NAND. Plus, the sensitivity volatile memory (where a loss of power causes data to be lost) makes it less than perfect for business-critical applications. In NAND’s case, low prices are offset by latency, endurance and density issues. Add in a crowded marketplace that makes it difficult for NAND vendors to be competitively profitable, and you can see why alternatives are attractive.

What could a vendor achieve with new products that addressed the shortcomings of NAND, allowing it to enhance both memory and storage applications? That’s what Intel and Micro were after with 3D XPoint memory, and what Intel says it delivered with the Optane SSD DC P4800X Series.

Taking off the wrapper: Optane SSD DC P4800X

What does the new solution offer out of the box? According to Intel, Optane delivers “an industry-leading combination of high throughput, low latency, high quality of service and high endurance” that allows the new solutions to be “deployed as blazing fast storage or caching tier.”

How does that claim look in real world terms? Though Intel compared the new 375GB Optane DC P4800X drives against its 400GB DC P3700 solutions, the performance numbers were notable and even startling.

In low queue depth (where most business applications generate their storage workloads) Optane SSDs performed 5X to 8X better than the DC P3700. But Optane’s random read IOPS performance is near 10X better than what DC P3700 delivers, and is about 4X the performance offered by competing NVM drives from Samsung and Seagate.

In practical terms, Optane has a significant lead in important metrics. Plus, the new solutions also offer better endurance than competing NAND SSDs. How much better and why is that important?

Let’s take the second point first. Though SSD failure rates are comparable to or better than mechanical HDDs, the materials in NAND flash SSDs degrade as they are used so their accuracy eventually falters. As a result, NAND flash SSDs’ working lifetimes are dictated by the number of write operations (known as program/erase (P/E) cycles) they can endure. SSD endurance metrics mean to produce lifespan numbers to guide end users’ purchasing decisions.

So what does that mean for Intel Optane? The company says DC P4800X products can support as many as 30 drive writes per day (DWPD) compared to the 0.5 to 10 DWPD offered by competing SSDs. That also enables the DC P4800X to endure up to 2.8x more total bytes written to it over five years than a DC P3700 SSD (which supports 17 DWPD).

As a result, the DC P4800X appears to fulfill Intel’s claims about its value as a notably fast and durable storage solution, but how about its applicability in memory caching scenarios? That’s where the company’s new Memory Drive Technology comes in, which Intel says “transparently integrates the drive into the memory subsystem and presents the SSD as DRAM to the OS and applications.” Thus, organizations can use Optane to create capacious, cost effective “pools” of shared memory for enhancing business application and workload performance.

Intel’s new Optane solutions are currently available to customers via an early ship program. MSRP for the pair is: Intel Optane SSD DC P4800X, 375 GB AIC: $1520, and Intel Optane SSD DC P4800X with Intel Memory Drive Technology: $1951 Additional capacities and form factors will be available in the second half of 2017. Intel noted that no changes to the OS are required by Optane but that the new SSDs are only supported by Intel Xeon processors.

Final analysis

That last point—that Optane is only supported by Intel Xeon processors—is both unsurprising and key to Intel’s larger strategy. Timing-wise, the company is planning commercial volumes of Optane in 2H 2017 which parallels the reported availability for its newest Xeon processors and server platform. Adding Optane to those next gen solutions should be a powerful attractant for system vendors and their customers. But the availability of unique Intel options for enhancing storage and memory would also steal some of the thunder of competing offerings from NVIDIA, AMD and ARM vendors whose data center ambitions are on the rise.

So what’s the key takeaway here? In essence, with its Optane SSD DC P4800X solutions, Intel has created a robust new technology that is appropriate for both fast storage and cost-effective pooled memory scenarios. The details the company shared, along with the comparisons to its own DC3700 SSDs, suggest that Optane’s price/performance qualities should attract enterprise buyers’ interest and enthusiasm.

Is there anything that might derail these ambitious plans? That depends on whether Intel is successful in ramping Optane production to meet commercial demand, a process that can be replete with unpleasant events and unplanned delays. Leaving aside those points, the company deserves applause for what it has achieved to date. Absent unforeseen events, IT markets should soon see robust, competitively-priced Intel Optane solutions for the data center.

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