Intel Optane SSD 900P Review: 3D XPoint Unleashed (Update)

Update 12/4/2017: We have added the 480GB capacity to the original review, which only included the 240GB drive. The review of the 480GB Optane drive begins on page three. Our conclusions have also been updated on page four.

The time is finally here. You’ve seen 3D Xpoint for the enterprise in our Intel DC P4800X review, and you’ve seen it as a fast cache for the desktop in our Optane Memory Review. But this is the form you’ve really been waiting for: A bootable 3D Xpoint SSD for the desktop. The Intel Optane 900p. Purportedly the fastest consumer SSD known to mankind. It has arrived, and it’s time for us to review what promises to be a massive generational shift in consumer storage.

The Intel Optane SSD 900P is lightning fast thanks to its new 3D XPoint memory, but it's also expensive because the cutting-edge technology is in high demand. Intel and Micron developed 3D XPoint memory for more than a decade in a secret project that created the first new productized memory since 1966. The companies still won't tell us all of the details behind the technology, but outside firms have confirmed it is a form of Phase Change Memory (PCM).

This speedy new memory is designed to fill the performance gap between DRAM and storage, so it crosses into both territorties. 3D XPoint is more expensive than NAND, but it is also faster and provides more endurance. 3D XPoint is slower than DRAM, but it is also cheaper and denser. The best part? Unlike DRAM, it retains data when you remove power, making it a suitable replacement for NAND.

Going into this review, we already knew the Optane SSD 900P would come away as the fastest consumer SSD ever. Intel derived the desktop version from the enterprise-focused DC P4800X, the fastest SSD we've tested. The real question was how much Intel would neuter the consumer version to reduce cost and keep data center administrators from adopting the desktop model as their own.

Intel did find a way to keep enterprise customers from scooping up all of these drives: the desktop Optane SSD 900P comes with one-third the endurance of the data center model and loses some enterprise features, such as SMBus. Nevertheless, the desktop Optane SSD 900P matches or exceeds the DC P4800X's performance specifications, so it promises explosive performance.

Specifications

Intel's bringing the Optane SSD to market in 280GB and 480GB capacities. The drives come in two predictable form factors: a PCIe Add-In Card and a 2.5" U.2 drive with an SFF-8639 connector. Intel will only have four models ready during the initial rollout, the 480GB U.2 will come later in the year. There are two model numbers for the U.2 drives, but we only have the specific numbers for the 280GB drives. One will ship with a standard U.2 cable and the other ships with an M.2 to U.2 adapter.

The 900P's capacities bookend the 375GB data center DC P4800X. Intel shared a roadmap with us that listed higher capacity enterprise models coming later this year, and even larger drives in 2018. We fully expect the desktop versions to grow in time as well, but Intel hasn't mentioned any definitive plans for future drives.

The Optane 900P provides up to 2,500 MB/s of sequential read throughput, which is 100 MB/s higher than the enterprise DC P4800X. The sequential write needle pegs at 2,000 MB/s, but you'll need to work to get there. The Optane SSD 900P really separates itself from the NAND SSD pack when we compare random performance. The desktop drives reach up to 550,000/500,000 read/write IOPS, which is well beyond any desktop SSD.

How 3D XPoint Works

By now you're accustomed to high random performance specifications with NVMe SSDs, but the Optane products are different. As we demonstrated in our Optane Memory review, the new memory is capable of reaching very high performance at low queue depths. We can even fully saturate the drive with some workloads before reaching a queue depth of 8.

3D XPoint is bit-addressable, so in contrast to NAND-based SSDs that write in larger chunks, the Optane 900P can break 4K data into smaller pieces and scatter it across multiple die, which boosts performance. Each 3D XPoint die also has 64 separate regions that can respond to commands simultaneously, whereas normal NAND has a maximum of four. That should provide an explosive performance gain for desktop PCs.

Unlike NAND, 3D XPoint is a write-in-place memory. That means the SSD controller doesn't have to erase existing data before writing new data. Eliminating the extra write cycle increases endurance and performance while eliminating the normal garbage collection process. That makes the 900P immune to the petty concerns of normal SSDs, like steady-state performance.

Optane's Advantages Over SSDs

The Optane SSD 900P will accelerate any storage-bound workload. Unlike Optane Memory, this is not a cache device, though you could get very creative with storage tiering using 3rd party software. That's a path we would like to explore in the future.

Intel released a list of workloads where the Optane 900P excels compared to NAND-based SSDs:

  • High Random Read And Write Performance
  • High Performance At Low Queue Depths
  • High Simultaneous Read And Write Performance
  • High Read And Write Performance At Small Capacity Points
  • High Performance Maintained As The Drive Fills
  • Heavy Workloads That Cause Drive Wear And Require High Endurance

That covers most types of data access. We don't know anyone who specifically targets a high-performance low-capacity drive, though. Most users shop by price, but the Optane SSD is the only beyond-flash product available so normal shopper behavior probably doesn't apply.

The Intel Optane 900P is a new tier that goes beyond fast, so existing SSDs have just moved down a notch. For instance, the Intel SSD 750 and Samsung 960 Pro are no longer the fastest; now they are "less than Optane."

Pricing, Warranty & Endurance

The Intel Optane SSD 900P will come to market at $389 (280GB) and $599 (480GB). That's expensive. The 900P is roughly three times the cost-per-GB of NAND SSDs.

We do have some concerns, though. The enterprise DC P4800X 375GB currently retails for $1,900 at Newegg. We've never seen one at the $1,520 MSRP. Limited availability is also troubling. Intel has shipped the DC P4800X to data center customers for several months, but finding a drive through the channel is fairly rare. After Flash Memory Summit, we tried to find a P4800X at MSRP but came away empty-handed. Many of the retailers we contacted quoted us a two-to-three month wait time. That obviously causes some concern with Optane SSD 900P availability. One of the retailers with a 900P listing shows availability on October 30th. In our briefing, Intel stated the drives would be available on launch day (10/26/2017).

The 900P comes with a limited five-year warranty that's restricted by the endurance rating. The endurance rating supports 10 drive writes per day for both capacities. That works out to a massive 8,760 terabytes of warrantied writes for the 480GB model. In comparison, the Samsung 960 Pro 2TB offers 1,200 terabytes of warrantied writes, so the 900P easily offers enough endurance for desktop users. It's a good thing the 900P's endurance is high--the drive is so fast we managed to write 85TB in a little over a day. Intel stated the drives will move into a read-only state once the endurance expires.

Software

We expect Intel to update the company's SSD Toolbox software, but at the time of writing, it does not fully support the 900P. Intel's SSD Toolbox software helps you optimize a handful of operating system settings, update the firmware, and secure erase drives.

Packaging & Accessories

The Optane SSD 900P is the company's first consumer 9-series product. Intel chose an appropriate drive for the top-shelf designation.

To coincide with the launch, Intel will show off the drive for the first time at CitizenCon, a community gathering of Roberts Space Industries' Star Citizen players. As part of the partnership, the Optane SSD 900P will ship with a download code for an exclusive in-game Sabre Raven ship that has unique in-game capabilities. As you might have guessed, the Sabre Raven's specialty has to do with it's over the top speed.

The drive ships with an additional bracket for true half-height, half-length use in smaller chassis.

Addressing PCIe 4.0 And LED/RGB Rumors

Intel hasn't explained why some online retailers posted product pages for additional models. The official explanation is that there are different part numbers for Star Citizen bundles and the standard models will come later. Earlier in the year, a leaked slide emerged with the correct 900P specifications. That sole screenshot had an image of a 900P with a lighting effect from either LEDs or RGB LEDs. Intel didn’t announce that product today, and the company doesn't discuss unreleased products.

On the reseller side, we found a few references to PCI Express 4.0 and the corresponding part numbers. The listings came just days after PCI-SIG announced the final specifications for PCIe 4.0. We think this may have been an error on the resellers part, possibly related to the 900P's PCIe 3.0 x4 interface. We should see PCIe 4.0 platforms and components in 2018, but it wouldn't make sense for Intel to release a PCIe 4.0 product now.

A Closer Look

There isn't much to see on the drive thanks to two metal covers that act as heatsinks and protect the sensitive surface mount components. The drive does look great, but we have to wonder what happened to the LED version that was pictured in a leak from Asia earlier in the year.

Internals

We found Intel's custom seven-channel ASIC NVMe controller underneath the heatsink. It can address up to four die per channel (28 total). The 900P 280GB comes with 21 16GB packages spread over both sides of the PCB. That gives us a raw capacity of 336 GB of 3D XPoint memory.

NAND-based SSDs have spare area, which is a portion of the capacity that the user cannot address. Some of the spare area is dedicated to ECC overhead and device-level RAID implementations that boost reliability. The remainder of the spare area is usually dedicated to over-provisioning, which increases performance and endurance.

Optane SSDs have spare area, but they don't use it in the traditional sense because many of the normal SSD rules don't apply. Instead, they use the extra space for ECC and metadata at the device level, and unlike NAND, they don't include any built-in over-provisioning at the die level. We can also assume that some of the extra capacity is used to replace failed cells.

We don't recommend removing the heatsink. Doing so damages the thermal pads because they don't separate cleanly. The custom ASIC controller and 3D XPoint packages don't provide us with a lot of additional information, just like Intel. The secrecy is still strong with this product, so we have limited technical information to share.

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  • Aspiring techie
    If Intel would have properly implemented NVMe raid, imagine what would happen if you put 8 of these in RAID 0.
    0
  • hdmark
    Can someone comment on the statement "your shiny new operating system was designed to run on an old hard disk drive. "? I somewhat understand it, but what does that mean in this case? If microsoft wanted... could they rewrite windows to perform better on an SSD or optane? Obviously they wont until there are literally no HDD's on the market anymore due to compatibility issues but I just wasnt sure what changes could be made to improve performance for these faster drives.
    0
  • AgentLozen
    Thanks for the review. I have a couple questions if you don't mind answering them.

    1. Is PCI-e 3.0 a bottleneck for Optane drives (or even flash in general). If solid state drive developers built PCI-e 4.0 drives today, would they scale to 2x the performance of modern 3.0 drives assuming there were compatible motherboards?

    2. Can someone explain what queue depth is and under what circumstances it's most important? The benchmarks show WILD differences in performance at various queue depths. Does it matter that flash based drives catch up at greater queue depths? Is QD1 the most important measurement to desktop users?

    3. In the service time benchmarks, it seems like there is no difference between drives in World of Warcraft, Battlefield 3, Adobe Photoshop, Indesign, After Effects. Sequential and Random Read and Write conclude "Optane is WAAAAY better" but the application service time concludes "there's no difference". Is it even worth investing in an Intel Optane drive if you won't see a difference in real world performance?
    1
  • AndrewJacksonZA
    This...

    I mean...

    This is just...

    .
    .
    .
    I want one. I want ten!!!


    Also, "Where Is VROC?" listed as a con? Hehe, I like how you're thinking. :-)
    0
  • dudmont
    Anonymous said:
    Can someone comment on the statement "your shiny new operating system was designed to run on an old hard disk drive. "? I somewhat understand it, but what does that mean in this case? If microsoft wanted... could they rewrite windows to perform better on an SSD or optane? Obviously they wont until there are literally no HDD's on the market anymore due to compatibility issues but I just wasnt sure what changes could be made to improve performance for these faster drives.


    Simplest way to answer is the term, "lowest common denominator". They(MS) designed 10 to be as smooth and fast as a standard old platter HD could run it, not a RAID array(which a SSD is basically a NAND raid array), or even better an XPoint raid array. Short queue depths(think of data movement as people standing in line) were what Windows is designed for, cause platter drives can't do more data movements than the number of heads on all the platters combined without the queue(people in line) growing, and thus slowing things down. In short, old platter drives can slowly handle like 8-20 lines of people, before they start to clog up, while nand, can quickly handle many lines of people(how many lines depends on the controller and the number of nand packages). Admittedly, it may not be the best answer, but it's how I visualize it in my head.
    0
  • hdmark
    Anonymous said:
    Anonymous said:
    Can someone comment on the statement "your shiny new operating system was designed to run on an old hard disk drive. "? I somewhat understand it, but what does that mean in this case? If microsoft wanted... could they rewrite windows to perform better on an SSD or optane? Obviously they wont until there are literally no HDD's on the market anymore due to compatibility issues but I just wasnt sure what changes could be made to improve performance for these faster drives.


    Simplest way to answer is the term, "lowest common denominator". They(MS) designed 10 to be as smooth and fast as a standard old platter HD could run it, not a RAID array(which a SSD is basically a NAND raid array), or even better an XPoint raid array. Short queue depths(think of data movement as people standing in line) were what Windows is designed for, cause platter drives can't do more data movements than the number of heads on all the platters combined without the queue(people in line) growing, and thus slowing things down. In short, old platter drives can slowly handle like 8-20 lines of people, before they start to clog up, while nand, can quickly handle many lines of people(how many lines depends on the controller and the number of nand packages). Admittedly, it may not be the best answer, but it's how I visualize it in my head.


    That helps a lot actually! thank you!
    0
  • WyomingKnott
    Queue depth can be simplified to how many operations can be started but not completed at the same time. It tends to stay low for consumer applications, and get higher if you are running many virtualized servers or heavy database access.

    With spinning metal disks, the main advantage was that the drive could re-order the queued requests to reduce total seek and latency at higher queue depths. With NMMe the possible queue size increased many-fold (weasel words for I don't know how much), and I have no idea why they provide a benefit for actually random-access memory.
    1
  • TMTOWTSAC
    Anonymous said:
    Can someone comment on the statement "your shiny new operating system was designed to run on an old hard disk drive. "? I somewhat understand it, but what does that mean in this case? If microsoft wanted... could they rewrite windows to perform better on an SSD or optane? Obviously they wont until there are literally no HDD's on the market anymore due to compatibility issues but I just wasnt sure what changes could be made to improve performance for these faster drives.


    Off the top of my head, the entire caching structure and methodology. Right now, the number one job of any cache is to avoid accessing the hard drive during computation. As soon as that happens, your billions of cycles per second CPU is stuck waiting behind your hundredths of a second hard drive access and multiple second transfer speed. This penalty is tens of orders of magnitude greater than anything else, branch misprediction, in-order stalls, etc. So anytime you have a choice between coding your cache for greater speed (like filling it completely to speed up just one program) vs avoiding a cache miss (reserving space for other programs that might be accessed), you have to weigh it against that enormous penalty.
    4
  • samer.forums
    where is the power usage test ? I can see a HUGE heatsink on that monster , and I want the Wattage of this card compared to other PLEASE.

    This SSD cant be made M2 card . so Samsung 960 pro has a huge advantage over it.
    0
  • dbrees
    A lot of the charts that show these massive performance gains are captioned that this is theoretical bandwidth which is not seen in actual usage due to the limitations of the OS. I get it, it's very cool, but if the OS is the bottleneck, no one in the consumer space would see a benefit, especially since NVMe RAID is still not fully developed. If I am wrong, please correct me.
    1
  • JohnnyLucky
    Chris - I clicked on the Tom's Hardware link to the newegg page. The specifications are showing PCIe 4.0. I know the new PCIe 4.0 standard has been approved and that we will see PCIe 4.0 products this time next year. Any chance the 900P is PCIe 4.0 ready or is it just a mistake?
    0
  • CRamseyer
    Anonymous said:
    Chris - I clicked on the Tom's Hardware link to the newegg page. The specifications are showing PCIe 4.0. I know the new PCIe 4.0 standard has been approved and that we will see PCIe 4.0 products this time next year. Any chance the 900P is PCIe 4.0 ready or is it just a mistake?


    We were told 24 hours before the review that it is PCIe 3.0 X4. I'm not sure where the 4.0 info comes from but more than one seller has it listed.
    0
  • Rob Burns
    I have to admit I get confused by what all the different tests would mean to my day to day experience. The biggest issue for me is saving large 3D and Photoshop files. Some of my files are over 1GB and take a long time to save. Since software crashes occur I need to save frequently and each time I do this it creates a serious interruption in the workflow. Which of the tests best represents the speed of saving a single, massive file? I've heard many times people say that upgrading from an HDD to and SSD didn't really change the speed of saving files. Is this type of save bottlenecked by the CPU or something else? If someone could shed some light on this it would be much appreciated.
    0
  • DavidC1
    Anonymous said:
    A lot of the charts that show these massive performance gains are captioned that this is theoretical bandwidth which is not seen in actual usage due to the limitations of the OS. I get it, it's very cool, but if the OS is the bottleneck, no one in the consumer space would see a benefit, especially since NVMe RAID is still not fully developed. If I am wrong, please correct me.


    That's not entirely true. People will benefit. It's still faster than NAND SSDs in everyday scenarios, just the amount you notice big increases are decreasing.

    First, NVMe RAID sucks, especially for Optane. RAID adds software-induced latency and the point of these drives are low latency. You reduce some of the gains by RAID-ing it.

    Optane SSD
    -No need for TRIM. TRIM is a requirement for non-Optane SSDs because the media is slow and TRIM, extremely roughly speaking is like defrag for SSDs
    -SSDs slow down drastically when drive is full. Not with Optane.
    -SSDs slow down when it's "dirty". That's every time when the drive is loaded and has no time to TRIM, or the demand is high that controller and the buffer gets overloaded. Not with Optane
    -If you just erased large amount of files, you'll see stuttering with SSDs. Not with Optane

    Not to mention when you are transferring or working with numerous small files, the speed advantages of Optane will be enormous.

    With games and applications the benefits will vary because some applications are CPU-bound, and some portions of code can't be accelerated much because other parts of code have fixed loading times. For example, you can't make ads disappear faster by having a faster drive.

    Whether it's worth the price of Optane? That depends on you. I think for most users its not. For users that want to just get the fastest system, not having an Optane SSD will be kinda strange. I mean, I expected $1000+ for 480GB. At $380 plenty of enthusiast systems can get the 280GB version.
    1
  • takeshi7
    It's obvious that once an SSD is installed in a system, the game loading times become CPU and/or RAM bottlenecked, not storage bottlenecked. That's why these fancy NVMe SSDs barely load games faster than budget SATA SSDs. Can Tom's Hardware please start testing how different CPU platforms/architectures affect game load times? I bet an i7 8700k with a budget SATA SSD will load World of Warcraft much faster than an FX 8350 with this Intel 900p.
    1
  • MichaelElfial
    Anonymous said:
    Anonymous said:
    Can someone comment on the statement "your shiny new operating system was designed to run on an old hard disk drive. "? I somewhat understand it, but what does that mean in this case? If microsoft wanted... could they rewrite windows to perform better on an SSD or optane? Obviously they wont until there are literally no HDD's on the market anymore due to compatibility issues but I just wasnt sure what changes could be made to improve performance for these faster drives.


    Off the top of my head, the entire caching structure and methodology. Right now, the number one job of any cache is to avoid accessing the hard drive during computation. As soon as that happens, your billions of cycles per second CPU is stuck waiting behind your hundredths of a second hard drive access and multiple second transfer speed. This penalty is tens of orders of magnitude greater than anything else, branch misprediction, in-order stalls, etc. So anytime you have a choice between coding your cache for greater speed (like filling it completely to speed up just one program) vs avoiding a cache miss (reserving space for other programs that might be accessed), you have to weigh it against that enormous penalty.


    Yeah, basically the operating system are limited to fast operative memory and slow storage for historical reasons. Now, the storage is fast enough to make feasible its usage in more RAM-like manner. A good example would be the file mapping features available in every modern OS. With slow storage this needs copying to RAM of chunks of the file and making that piece available at certain address. With much faster storage you can skip the RAM entirely. If you start thinking in that direction it seems quite interesting to develop a 3-d kind of storage support in the operating systems. Like the file mapping there are a number of existing OS features that can benefit directly and become the actual parts of the OS that are clients to this 3-d kind of storage.... Well, I mean that when you think of it, we already have enough constructs in the modern operating systems to handle this and we can expect more efficient methods rather sooner than later - no major redesign will be required to feel the benefits.
    1
  • takeshi7
    Since Optane doesn't require TRIM or garbage collection it would be cool to see some non-AHCI SATA 1 drives or maybe even PATA/Compactflash cards that use it. It would be great for older computers that don't have TRIM and want solid state performance without degradation. I know it will never happen, but I can dream.

    Edit: Or even just a SATA 3 version that I can put in my PS4, since PS4 Pro has SATA 3, but doesn't support TRIM.
    1
  • Snipergod87
    Anonymous said:
    Since Optane doesn't require TRIM or garbage collection it would be cool to see some non-AHCI SATA 1 drives or maybe even PATA/Compactflash cards that use it. It would be great for older computers that don't have TRIM and want solid state performance without degradation. I know it will never happen, but I can dream.

    Edit: Or even just a SATA 3 version that I can put in my PS4, since PS4 Pro has SATA 3, but doesn't support TRIM.


    As you stated that wont happen, going to SATA would incur a big performance hit and increase latency hugely compared to NVMe. Just get a SSD for yoru PS4 that has internal garbage collection capability's (most do) so you don't have to rely on TRIM.
    0
  • takeshi7
    Anonymous said:
    Anonymous said:
    Since Optane doesn't require TRIM or garbage collection it would be cool to see some non-AHCI SATA 1 drives or maybe even PATA/Compactflash cards that use it. It would be great for older computers that don't have TRIM and want solid state performance without degradation. I know it will never happen, but I can dream.

    Edit: Or even just a SATA 3 version that I can put in my PS4, since PS4 Pro has SATA 3, but doesn't support TRIM.


    As you stated that wont happen, going to SATA would incur a big performance hit and increase latency hugely compared to NVMe. Just get a SSD for yoru PS4 that has internal garbage collection capability's (most do) so you don't have to rely on TRIM.

    That internal garbage collection doesn't work. The data has to be overwritten with zeroes for the internal garbage collection to think the data has been cleared. Most OS's just delete the pointer to the file in the file system, but don't actually overwrite the data, so even if I delete all the games off of my PS4's SSD, the SSD still thinks it's full and can't do garbage collection. And yes the SATA interface would have higher latency, but maybe high latency lower binned chips could be used or something.
    1
  • mtwolters8604
    Question is, does this SSD work with a ASUS z170 pro-gaming Mobo. Asus and Intel support could not confirm it.... I am worried.
    -1