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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  • Ratman6161 - Monday, April 24, 2017 - link

    "The test that I would be interested in is if this technology could be an effective cache is speeding up mainstream SSDs."
    That's exactly what I was wondering i.e. if I paired it with my SATA 250 EVO. Or, they have a Crucial MX300 SATA SSD in the test which is an OK lower priced SSD. Given the optane drives are $44 and $77 respectively, if someone had something like the MX300 they might be tempted to pair it with an Optane cache.
    On the other hand you have to have the latest Intel CPU and chipset, and I just jumped ship and went with a Ryzen 5 - so its all academic to me.
    Reply
  • Lolimaster - Wednesday, April 26, 2017 - link

    LTT already did, it's worthless.

    For $77 you're close of a crucial MX300 275GB
    Reply
  • Billy Tallis - Monday, April 24, 2017 - link

    That's the test that was running when it died. Reply
  • Twingo - Monday, April 24, 2017 - link

    Billy, are you expecting to get a replacement so you can conduct all these tests? Reply
  • Billy Tallis - Monday, April 24, 2017 - link

    Yes, the replacement will be delivered tomorrow. But don't expect the follow-up article to be real soon. I also want to update the software on the testbeds and run a reasonably large number of drives through, and do some deeper experimentation with the caching to probe its behavior. Reply
  • beginner99 - Tuesday, April 25, 2017 - link

    Mainstream TLC ssds for sure there will be a speed-up measurable in benchmarks. If we as user would actually notice a difference is a completely other question. Due to KISS instead of spending money on this cache drive, instead just buy a tier higher SSD. If mainstrem choose 960 evo instead or of 960 evo choose 960 pro instead. Reply
  • fallaha56 - Tuesday, April 25, 2017 - link

    absolutely not(!)

    for the reason you said

    the 960 pro offers no meaningful real-world advantage to anyone / 99.9% of users
    Reply
  • Glock24 - Monday, April 24, 2017 - link

    "Only Core 13, 15 and i7 processors are supported; Celeron and Pentium parts are excluded."

    There's a typo or I've never seen those Core 13 and Core 15 CPUs before.

    From the data you showed, I see no real benefit is using Optane as a caching solution vs. using an SSD as boot drive. At least not at that price point.
    Reply
  • Kristian Vättö - Monday, April 24, 2017 - link

    For the full review, could you also monitor DRAM usage? 16GB is not really an entry-level setup, so with that much DRAM Intel's software might be caching to DRAM as well like Samsung's RAPID mode, which would inflate the scores.

    Might also be worthwhile to run at least a couple of the application tests with 4GB/8GB of DRAM to see how things work when caching is done fully by Optane.
    Reply
  • Sarah Terra - Monday, April 24, 2017 - link

    Also optane's incredibly low latency should be tested for real world benefits Reply

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