Intel’s Optane Memory and Incremental Revolution

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  April 26, 2017

Vendors love the big splash. Being first to market with major new technologies or delivering wholesale revisions of existing solutions and platforms generates numerous headlines and kudos. But secondary ripple effects can reveal significant progress, too.

That’s the case with the new Optane SSD DC P4800X Series offering that Intel announced last month, a solution targeting data center storage applications. That was followed on March 27th with the official introduction of Optane-based memory modules for PCs.

This week, Intel announced the commercial availability of Optane memory modules for PCs and other systems leveraging the company’s 7th gen Core processors. Those use cases demonstrate both Optane’s flexibility and how Intel can leverage individual breakthrough developments to pursue multiple markets and deliver substantial benefits.

What Optane means

So what is Optane exactly? It’s Intel’s brand for commercialized solutions based on the 3D XPoint (pronounced: three dee cross point) non-volatile memory (NVM) technology that the company announced with Micron Technologies in July 2015. In essence, the pair were aiming to deliver a technology that could address the shortcomings of NAND and result in differentiated offerings for both storage and memory applications.

The P4800X Series aimed at the former market in a 375GB form factor that delivered better read/write performance, as well as significantly enhanced endurance that should make them longer-lived than conventional NAND drives. In addition, Intel’s new Memory Drive Technology enables the P4800X Series to be integrated into a system’s memory subsystem and presents the SSD as DRAM to the OS and applications. That means customers can use Optane to create capacious, cost effective “pools” of shared memory for enhancing application and workload performance.

Optane for PCs and gaming

How about Intel’s new solutions? The company says Optane memory modules are on sale now as add-in components in 16GB (MSRP $44) and 32GB (MSRP $77) capacities. In addition, OEM systems with Optane memory installed will be available later in the year.

In a blog post last month, Navin Shenoy, the SVP and GM of Intel’s Client Computing Group, noted that the new offerings provide intriguing benefits. For instance, Optane-enabled PCs can power-up to twice as fast, and can boost system performance by up to 28 percent and storage performance by up to 14X. Common applications, like Microsoft Outlook will launch up to nearly 6x faster and Google’s Chrome browser launches up to 5X faster. Gamers will benefit, too, with games launching up to 67 percent faster, and levels loading up to 65 percent faster than they do on systems without Optane.

Why are these performance points important? For different reasons, in different situations. Shenoy noted that Intel had discovered that in workplaces, most people with PCs use an average of 11 apps per day, and launch each app as many as seven times per shift. If using Optane can save each employee 3 to 5 minutes per day—which seems reasonable—businesses could see individual workers capturing ten or more otherwise wasted hours per year.

Consumers using Optane-enabled PCs would obviously see most of the same time savings that businesses do but using those systems for gaming will capture additional performance benefits in game launching and levels loading. That will be attractive to those who invest in high-end gaming systems but, since Optane can be used across 7th gen Core-based PCs, owners of gaming PCs with i3 and i5 chips will also see substantial benefits.

That should provide a critical advantage for Intel in Asia markets where less expensive gaming systems are hugely popular. But the fact is that when you compare Optane’s features with its cost, it’s easy to conclude that for a modest investment the new memory modules will provide benefits unique to Intel-based systems that customers will see every day. With ambitious competitors like NVIDIA and AMD revving up their gaming efforts, the arrival of Optane memory is particularly timely.

Final analysis

While public attention often focuses on major or unusual technologies, it’s important to remember that important new offerings don’t always make a huge initial splash. That’s especially true in cases like 3D XPoint memory where complex manufacturing innovations result in both significant and sometimes incremental performance gains.

The fact that in the space of a month Intel has introduced Optane-based solutions for entirely separate, radically different use cases and applications testifies to the technology’s flexibility. But it also underscores Intel and Micron’s decision to invest a sizable amount of time and money into bringing 3D XPoint to life.

That decision has resulted in new products that will noticeably improve the experience of millions of workers and consumers, owners of high- and low-end gaming systems, and the businesses and people who invest in Intel Optane-based PCs. Often the most effective revolutions are the ones that happen incrementally, every day.

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