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HDD Hybrid Array Taken To The MSI Extreme

Intel opened the door again for hybrid cache arrays by releasing Optane Memory. The topic seems to pop back up every five years, but it has never been this exciting, or speedy. Advances in switching and software technology lead the way for the new capabilities, but you have to sprinkle in a dash of market panic as NAND flash prices soared to fully understand why cache is in the news once again.

Like SLC NAND before it, MLC is being replaced by an inferior technology that is slower but increases capacity sizes for devices and reduces costs. TLC manufacturing already outpaces MLC in the multi-billion Dollar fabs and from this point forward the divide will only increase. History tells us the last gasp of life for 2-bit per cell MLC will come in the form of small capacity products optimized for random read performance. Unlike the SLC cache SSDs that flooded the market five years ago, MLC has competition from 3D Xpoint memory that delivers superior performance at low queue depths. MLC has a pricing advantage over 3D Xpoint but as the bit output decreases the prices shoot up due to lower supply.

MSI surprised us at Computex with a new all-in-one storage device that holds two NVMe SSDs up to 110mm in length and a 2.5" HDD. The storage system highlights the need for low-cost moving media required to hold gamers' large data volumes while also emphasizing low latency and high throughput performance.

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MSI tells us to expect up to 7,200 MBps from the dual NVMe SSD array that runs in RAID 0. Using large capacity NVMe SSDs will cache a lot of data, so only very cold data will come to the host system directly from the spinning disk. To ensure data protection, the card features an array of super capacitors that preserve data in flight in the event of a host power fail condition.

The NVMe SSDs should benefit from increased airflow from the custom blower style fan used to tame thermal throttling.

MSI tells us the card will ship in MSI branded desktop systems. The company doesn't have plans to release the card as a standalone product. Hopefully our (and your) excitement will urge them to rethink that strategy. We were told not to expect this anytime soon, though, because the card on display is only a prototype. The lead time could be as long as one year away, according to the product manager with whom we spoke.

Tell us what you think about using advanced high-speed cache devices. Do you see this as a worthy replacement for TLC-based SSDs?

Chris Ramseyer is a Contributing Editor for Tom's Hardware US. He tests and reviews consumer storage.