First Thoughts

Since our Optane Memory sample died after only about a day of testing, we cannot conduct a complete analysis of the product or make any final recommendations. With that said, the early indications from the benchmarks we were able to complete are mostly very positive reflections of the performance of the Intel Optane Memory.

As a cache device, the Optane Memory brought a hard drive-based system's SYSmark scores up to the level of mainstream SSDs. These averages do not capture differences in the latency distributions of the Optane cache+hard drive configuration vs a flash SSD. In the Optane+hard drive configuration, a cache hit will be almost 1000 times faster than a cache miss, resulting in a very bimodal distribution. The flash SSDs mostly occupy the territory between the performance of Optane and of the hard drive. It's possible that a mainstream flash SSD could deliver a user experience with fewer noticeable delays than the Optane caching experience with the occasional inevitable cache miss. Overall, however, the Optane cache delivers a remarkable improvement over just a hard drive, and the 32GB cache capacity we tested is clearly large enough to be of substantial use.

As a standalone drive, the Optane Memory breaks a few records that were set by the Intel Optane SSD DC P4800X enterprise drive just last week. The Optane Memory is more tuned for small transfer sizes and offers even better QD1 random read performance. These differences seem like exactly the right optimizations to make for a drive focused on client workloads. The throughput at higher queue depths is nowhere near what the P4800X delivers and falls behind what more expensive consumer SSDs can offer, but those situations make up a very small portion of client workloads. The first and only batch of synthetic tests we were able to run on the Optane Memory were derived from the enterprise SSD tests used on the Optane SSD DC P4800X, and they cast the consumer flash SSDs in an unrealistically bad light. A typical desktop user has little reason to care how well their SSD handles multiple threads performing sustained sequential transfers on a full drive, so the Optane Memory's stellar performance there should not lead users to prefer an Optane cached hard drive setup over an all solid state configuration.

The one area where we are ready to draw some conclusions is power consumption. We still need to conduct further analysis of the Optane Memory's power use under load, but its idle power situation is simple: the Optane Memory lacks any meaningful power saving mode. It is rated for 1W at idle and that's the lowest we saw it get throughout our short time testing it. 1W is something desktop users can shrug off; a typical gaming desktop dedicates more power than that to decorative LEDs. But Optane Memory is also intended for mobile use, and the first systems announced to offer Optane Memory were Lenovo ThinkPads. Adding a minimum of 1W on top of the power drawn by a mechanical hard drive will not help battery life, no matter how much faster it makes the storage system.

With Optane Memory, Intel seems to finally have the cache device they've been needing for a decade to make SSD caching viable. It's fast in spite of its low capacity, something flash based cache devices could never pull off. Optane Memory is also more affordable at $44 and $77 than Intel's previous cache devices.

With that said, however, I wonder whether it may all be too little, too late. SSD caching has some unavoidable limitations: cold caches, cache evictions when the cache proves too small, and the added complexity of a tiered setup. With those disadvantages, Optane Memory enters a market where the price of flash SSDs means there's already very little reason for consumer machines to use a mechanical hard drive as primary storage. Instead, the best case scenario here appears to be enabling the capacity benefits of tiered storage - offering nimble systems with 1TB+ of cheap storage and is presented to the user as a single drive - but without as many of the drawbacks of earlier NAND-based caches.

In some sense, Optane Memory may just be a stop-gap product for the consumer market until Intel is able to deliver usefully large Optane SSDs for consumers. But those SSDs are likely to arrive with prohibitively high prices if they ship later this year as planned. 3D XPoint memory has arrived and is poised to revolutionize parts of the enterprise storage market, but it may not be ready to have a meaningful impact on the consumer market.

Mixed Read/Write And Idle Power Consumption
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  • name99 - Tuesday, April 25, 2017 - link

    Why are you so sure you understand the technology? Intel has told us nothing about how it works.
    What we have are
    - a bunch of promises from Intel that are DRAMATICALLY not met
    - an exceptionally lousy (expensive, low capacity) product being sold.
    You can interpret these in many ways, but the interpretation that "Intel over promised and dramatically underdelivered" is certainly every bit as legit as the interpretation "just wait, the next version (which ships when?) will be super-awesome".

    If Optane is capable TODAY of density comparable to NAND, then why ship such a lousy capacity? And if it's not capable, then what makes you so sure that it can reach NAND density? Getting 3D-NAND to work was not a cheap exercise. Does Intel have the stomach (and the project management skills) to last till that point, especially given that the PoS that they're shipping today ain't gonna generate enough of a revenue stream to pay for the electric bill of the Optane team while they take however long they need to get out the next generation.
    Reply
  • emn13 - Tuesday, April 25, 2017 - link

    Intel hasn't confirmed what it is, but AFAICT all the signs point to xpoint being phase-change ram, or at least very similar to it. Which still leaves a lot of wiggle room, of course. Reply
  • ddriver - Tuesday, April 25, 2017 - link

    IIRC they have explicitly denied xpoint being PCM. But then again, who would ever trust a corporate entity, and why? Reply
  • Cellar - Tuesday, April 25, 2017 - link

    Implying Intel would only use only the revenue of Optane to fund their next generation of Optane. You forget how much profit they make milking out their Processors? *Insert Woody Harrelson wiping tears away with money gif* Reply
  • name99 - Tuesday, April 25, 2017 - link

    Be careful. What he's criticizing is the HYPE (ie Intel's business plan for this technology) rather than the technology itself, and in that respect he is basically correct. It's hard to see what more Intel could have done to give this technology a bad name.

    - We start with the ridiculous expectations that were made for it. Most importantly the impression given that the RAM-REPLACEMENT version (which is what actually changes things, not a faster SSD) was just around the corner.

    - Then we get this attempt to sell to the consumer market a product that makes ZERO sense for consumers along any dimension. The product may have a place in enterprise (where there's often value in exceptionally fast, albeit expensive, particular types of storage), but for consumers there's nothing of value here. Seriously, ignore the numbers, think EXPERIENCE. In what way is the Optane+hard drive experience better than the larger SSD+hard drive or even large SSD and no hard drive experience at the same price points. What, in the CONSUMER experience, takes advantage of the particular strengths of Optane?

    - Then we get this idiotic power management nonsense, which reduces the value even further for a certain (now larger than desktop) segment of mobile computing

    - And the enforced tying of the whole thing to particular Intel chipsets just shrinks the potential market even further. For example --- you know who's always investigating potential storage solutions and how they could be faster? Apple. It is conceivable (obviously in the absence of data none of us knows, and Intel won't provide the data) that a fusion drive consisting of, say, 4GB of Optane fused to an iPhone or iPad's 64 or 128 or 256GB could have advantages in terms of either performance or power. (I'm thinking particularly for power in terms of allowing small writes to coalesce in the Optane.)
    But Intel seems utterly uninterested in investigating any sort of market outside the tiny tiny market it has defined.

    Maybe Optane has the POTENTIAL to be great tech in three years. (Who knows since, as I said, right know what it ACTUALLY is is a secret, along with all its real full spectrum of characteristics).
    But as a product launch, this is a disaster. Worse than all those previous Intel disasters whose names you've forgotten like ViiV or Intel Play or the Intel Personal Audio Player 3000 or the Intel Dot.Station.
    Reply
  • Reflex - Tuesday, April 25, 2017 - link

    Meanwhile in the server space we are pretty happy with what we've seen so far. I get that its not the holy grail you expected, but honestly I didn't read Intel's early info as an expectation that gen1 would be all things to all people and revolutionize the industry. What I saw, and what was delivered, was a path forward past the world of NAND and many of its limitations, with the potential to do more down the road.

    Today, in low volume and limited form factors it likely will sell all that Intel can produce. My guess is that it will continue to move into the broader space as it improves incrementally generation over generation, like most new memory products have done. Honestly the greatest accomplishment here is Intel and Micron finally introducing a new memory type, at production quantity, with a reasonable cost for its initial markets. We've spent years hearing about phase-change, racetrack, memrister, MRAM and on and on, and nobody has managed to introduce anything at volume since NAND. This is a major milestone, and hopefully it touches off a race between Optane and other technologies that have been in the permanent 3-5 year bucket for a decade plus.
    Reply
  • ddriver - Tuesday, April 25, 2017 - link

    Yeah, I bet you are offering hypetane boards by the dozens LOL. But shouldn't it be more like "in the _servers that don't serve anyone_ space" since in order to take advantage of them low queue depth transfers and latencies, such a s "server" would have to serve what, like a client or two?

    I don't claim to be a "server specialist" like you apparently do, but I'd say if a server doesn't have a good saturation, they either your business sucks and you don't have any clients or you have more servers than you need and should cut back until you get a good saturation.

    To what kind of servers is it that beneficial to shave off a few microseconds of data access? And again, only in low queue depth loads? I'd understand if hypetane stayed equally responsive regardless of the load, but as the load increases we see it dwindling down to the performance of available nand SSDs. Which means you won't be saving on say query time when the system is actually busy, and when the system is not it will be snappy enough as it is, without magical hypetane storage. After all, servers serve networks, and even local networks are slow enough to completely mask out them "tremendous" SSD latencies. And if we are talking an "internet" server, then the network latency is much, much worse than that.

    You also evidently don't understand how the industry works. It is never about "the best thing that can be done", it is always about "the most profitable thing that can be done". As I've repeated many times, even NAND flash can be made tremendously faster, in terms of both latency and bandwidth, it is perfectly possible today and it has been technologically possible for years. Much like it has been possible to make cars that go 200 MPH, yet we only see a tiny fraction of the cars that are actually capable to make that speed. There has been a small but steady market for mram, but that's a niche product, it will never be mainstream because of technological limitations. It is pretty much the same thing with hypetane, regardless of how much intel are trying to shove it to consumers in useless product forms, it only makes sense in an extremely narrow niche. And it doesn't owe its performance to its "new memory type" but to its improved controller, and even then, its performance doesn't come anywhere close to what good old SLC is capable of technologically as a storage medium, which one should not confuse with a compete product stack.

    The x25-e was launched almost 10 years ago. And its controller was very much "with the times" which is the reason the drive does a rather meager 250/170 mb/s. Yet even back then its latency was around 80 microseconds, with its "latest and greatest" hypetane struggling to beat that by a single order of magnitude 10 years later. Yet technologically the SLC PE cycle can go as low as 200 nanoseconds, which is 50 times better than hypetane and 400 times better than what the last pure SLC SSD controller was capable of.

    No wonder the industry abandoned SLC - it was and still is too good not only for consumers but also for the enterprise. Which begs the question, with the SLC trump card being available for over a decade why would intel and micron waste money on researching a new media. And whether they really did that, or simply took good old SLC, smeared a bunch of lies, hype and cheap PR on it to step forward and say "here, we did something new".

    I mean come on, when was the last time intel made something new? Oh that's right, back when they made netburst, and it ended up a huge flop. And then, where did the rescue come from? Something radically new? Nope, they got back to the same old tried and true, and improved instead of trying to innovate. Which is also what this current situation looks like.

    I can honestly think of no better reason to be so secretive about the "amazing new xpoint", unless it actually isn't neither amazing, nor new, nor xpoint. I mean if it s a "tech secret" I don't see how they shouldn't be able to protect their IP via patents, I mean if it really is something new, it is not like they are short on the money it will take to patent it. So there is no good reason to keep it such a secret other than the intent to cultivate mystery over something that is not mysterious at all.
    Reply
  • eddman - Tuesday, April 25, 2017 - link

    This is what happens when people let their personal feelings get in the way.

    "Even if they cure cancer, they still suck and I hate them"
    Reply
  • ddriver - Tuesday, April 25, 2017 - link

    Except it doesn't cure cancer. And I'd say it is always better to prevent cancer than to have the destructive treatment leave you a diminished being. Reply
  • eddman - Tuesday, April 25, 2017 - link

    Just admit you have a personal hatred towards MS, intel and nvidia, no matter what they do, and be done with it. It's beyond obvious. Reply

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