Conclusion

The idea behind the Optane Memory H10 is quite intriguing. QLC NAND needs a performance boost to be competitive against mainstream TLC-based SSDs, and Intel's 3D XPoint memory is still by far the fastest non-volatile storage on the market. Unfortunately, there are too many factors weighing down the H10's potential. It's two separate SSDs on one card, so the NAND side of the drive still needs some DRAM that adds to the cost. The caching is entirely software managed, so the NAND SSD controller and the Optane controller cannot coordinate with each other and Intel's caching software sometimes struggles to make good use of both portions of the drive simultaneously.

Some of these challenges are exacerbated by benchmarking conditions; our test suite was designed with SLC write caching in mind but not two layers of cache that are sometimes functioning more like a RAID-0. None of our synthetic benchmarks managed to trigger that bandwidth aggregation between the Optane and NAND portions of the H10. Intel cautions that they have only optimized their caching algorithms for real-world storage patterns, and it is easy to see how some of our tests have differences that may be very significant. (In particular, many of our tests only give the system the opportunity to use block-level caching, but Intel's software can also perform file-level caching.) But this only emphasizes that the Optane Memory H10 is not a one size fits all storage solution.

For the heaviest, most write-intensive workloads, putting a small Optane cache in front of the QLC NAND only postpones the inevitable performance drops. In some cases, trying to keep the right data in the cache causes more performance issues than it solves. However, the kind of real-world workloads that generate that much IO are unlikely to run well on a 15W notebook CPU anyways. The Optane cache doesn't magically transform a low-end SSD into a top of the line drive, and the Optane Memory H10 is probably never going to be a good choice for desktops that can easily accommodate a wider range of storage options than a thin ultrabook.

On lighter workloads that are more typical of what an ultrabook is good for, the Optane Memory H10 is generally competitive with other low-end NVMe offerings and in good conditions it can be more responsive than any NAND flash-only drive. For everyday use, the H10 is certainly preferable over a QLC-only drive, but against TLC-based drives it's a tough sell. We haven't had the chance to perform detailed power measurements of the Optane Memory H10, but there's little chance it can provide better battery life than the best TLC-based SSDs.

If Intel is serious about making QLC+Optane caching work well enough to compete against TLC-only drives, they'll have to do better than the Optane Memory H10. TLC-only SSDs will almost always have a more consistent performance profile than a tiered setup. The Optane cache on the H10 doesn't soften the rough edges enough to make it suitable for heavy workloads, and it doesn't enhance the performance on light workloads enough to give the H10 a significant advantage over the best TLC drives. When the best-case performance of even a QLC SSD is solidly in "fast enough" territory thanks to SLC caching, the focus should be on improving the worst case, not on optimizing use cases that already feel almost instantaneous.

Optane has found great success in some segments of the datacenter storage market, but in the consumer market it's still looking for the right niche. QLC NAND is also still relatively unproven, though recently it has finally started to deliver on the promise of meaningfully lower prices. The combination of QLC and Optane might still be able to produce an impressive consumer product, but it will take more work from Intel than this relatively low-effort product.

Mixed Read/Write Performance
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  • Valantar - Tuesday, April 23, 2019 - link

    "Why hamper it with a slower bus?": cost. This is a low-end product, not a high-end one. The 970 EVO can at best be called "midrange" (though it keeps up with the high end for performance in a lot of cases). Intel doesn't yet have a monolithic controller that can work with both NAND and Optane, so this is (as the review clearly states) two devices on one PCB. The use case is making a cheap but fast OEM drive, where caching to the Optane part _can_ result in noticeable performance increases for everyday consumer workloads, but is unlikely to matter in any kind of stress test. The problem is that adding Optane drives up prices, meaning that this doesn't compete against QLC drives (which it would beat in terms of user experience) but also TLC drives which would likely be faster in all but the most cache-friendly, bursty workloads.

    I see this kind of concept as the "killer app" for Optane outside of datacenters and high-end workstations, but this implementation is nonsense due to the lack of a suitable controller. If the drive had a single controller with an x4 interface, replaced the DRAM buffer with a sizeable Optane cache, and came in QLC-like capacities, it would be _amazing_. Great capacity, great low-QD speeds (for anything cached), great price. As it stands, it's ... meh.
    Reply
  • cb88 - Friday, May 17, 2019 - link

    Therein lies the BS... Optane cannot compete as a low end product as it is too expensive.. so they should have settled for being the best premium product with 4x PCIe... probably even maxing out PCIe 4.0 easily once it launches. Reply
  • CheapSushi - Wednesday, April 24, 2019 - link

    I think you're mixing up why it would be faster. The lanes are the easier part. It's inherently faster. But you can't magically make x2 PCIe lanes push more bandwidth than x4 PCIe lanes on the same standard (3.0 for example). Reply
  • twotwotwo - Monday, April 22, 2019 - link

    Prices not announced, so they can still make it cheaper.

    Seems like a tricky situation unless it's priced way below anything that performs similarly though. Faster options on one side and really cheap drives that are plenty for mainstream use on the other.
    Reply
  • CaedenV - Monday, April 22, 2019 - link

    lol cheaper? All of the parts of a traditional SSD, *plus* all of the added R&D, parts, and software for the Optane half of the drive?
    I will be impressed if this is only 2x the price of a Sammy... and still slower.
    Reply
  • DanNeely - Monday, April 22, 2019 - link

    Ultimately, to scale this I think Intel is going to have to add an on card PCIe switch. With the company currently dominating the market setting prices to fleece enterprise customers, I suspect that means they'll need to design something in house. PCIe4 will help some, but normal drives will get faster too. Reply
  • kpb321 - Monday, April 22, 2019 - link

    I don't think that would end up working out well. As the article mentions PCI-E switches tend to be power hungry which wouldn't work well and would add yet another part to the drive and push the BOM up even higher. For this to work you'd need to deliver TLC level performance or better but at a lower cost. Ultimately the only way I can see that working would be moving to a single integrated controller. From a cost perspective eliminating the DRAM buffer by using a combination of the Optane memory and HBM should probably work. This would probably push it into a largely or completely hardware managed solution and would improve compatibility and eliminate the issues with the PCI-E bifrication and bottlenecks. Reply
  • ksec - Monday, April 22, 2019 - link

    Yes, I think we will need a Single Controller to see its true potential and if it has a market fit.

    Cause right now I am not seeing any real benefits or advantage of using this compared to decent M.2 SSD.
    Reply
  • Kevin G - Monday, April 22, 2019 - link

    What Intel needs to do for this to really take off is to have a combo NAND + Optane controller capable of handling both types natively. This would eliminate the need for a PCIe switch and free up board space on the small M.2 sticks. A win-win scenario if Intel puts forward the development investment. Reply
  • e1jones - Monday, April 22, 2019 - link

    A solution for something in search of a problem. And, typical Intel, clearly incompatible with a lot of modern systems, much less older systems. Why do they keep trying to limit the usability of Optane!?

    In a world where each half was actually accessible, it might be useful for ZFS/NAS apps, where the Optane could be the log or cache and the QLC could be a WORM storage tier.
    Reply

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