Intel Optane 3D XPoint Memory Review

Intel doesn't want you to think of its new Optane Memory as an SSD. The main component is an SSD that comes bristling not only with the hottest new memory technology, but also a combination of protocols, hardware, and software work together to transform Optane Memory into a caching solution, primarily for HDDs. For the uninitiated, caching learns your usage patterns and stores frequently-accessed data on a faster storage device to speed up boot times, application loading, and many other aspects of overall system performance.

The drive comes packaged in the M.2 form factor, but its caching lineage dates back to 2005. That's when Intel started a crusade to accelerate storage performance by using memory to boost the performance of spinning disks. Intel's modern interpretation came in 2011 with the introduction of Rapid Storage Technology (RST).

When you look past the song and dance, Optane Memory is a continuation of RST, albeit with a new storage device based on the latest media technology. The new 3D XPoint media just happens to be the first new memory to enter mass production in 25 years, and it is very, very fast. 

Faster Than Flash

Intel and Micron developed 3D XPoint in a top-secret project that spanned nearly a decade. 3D XPoint is the culmination of several new technologies designed to fill the performance gap between DRAM and storage. The speedy new material is more expensive than NAND, but it is faster and provides more endurance. 3D XPoint is slower than DRAM, but it is also cheaper and denser. The best part? It retains data when you remove power.

3D XPoint promises to alter the memory landscape because it offers unique benefits, such as exponentially higher performance during light workloads. That should provide an explosive performance gain for desktop computers. Using 3D XPoint as a supplemental layer of DRAM is already part of Intel's data center strategy, and bringing that same functionality to the desktop could reduce the amount of DRAM you need for your system. It could also enable a radical new set of capabilities, such as eliminating the operating system boot process.

Those types of advancements could take years to surface because software always lags behind hardware, but 3D XPoint opens the door to those possibilities. For now, Intel's first 3D XPoint product comes in the form of an M.2 Optane storage device designed to speed up HDDs.

Target Market And Uses

SSDs have gained ground in the notebook market, but 75% of desktops still ship with only a hard disk drive. That may sound like a staggering number, but OEMs charge a high premium for SSDs, which makes them less desirable than aftermarket products. The validation process takes time, so flash-equipped desktops often use older technology.

Intel designed Optane Memory to be a drop-in upgrade for less technical PC users. Optane Memory doesn't require an operating system reinstall or even the knowledge required to clone an existing drive. Instead, Optane Memory uses software to meld an HDD and SSD into one logical volume. The Optane Memory device becomes transparent once you enable the software, and you can't access it directly because it sits in front of the accelerated storage device.

Optane Memory can quickly and easily boost performance at a low price point. Intel designed the technology to speed up hard disk drives, but you can use RST to accelerate solid-state drives as well (more on the following page). You can only accelerate one drive at a time, and even though Intel doesn't officially support it, it can be a secondary drive. This is good news for gamers who already use an SSD for the boot drive and a hard drive for game installations.

If you frequent the storage reviews section, then you're familiar with the current state of SSDs. Prices have shot up, large capacities are difficult to find, and the current crop of affordable products are, for the most part, slower than previous-generation models. They just don't build them like they used to. MyDigitalSSD is the only company that offers an affordable high-performance NVMe SSD with MLC NAND. Everything else uses low-cost TLC NAND that is often slower than products released five years ago. The time is ripe for a new storage technology.

Unifying Memory And Storage

"Storage class memory" has become a new buzz term. The goal is to eventually combine system memory (i.e. DRAM) and storage into a unified structure. Optane Memory is a step in that direction.

The page file system inside Windows combines your storage and system memory. When you run out of system memory, the operating system uses your storage device as virtual memory. The performance drop off between DRAM and a hard disk drive is massive. SSDs help, but most of the virtual memory requests happen at low queue depths. That's where Optane shines, and also where SSDs are least effective.

Systems with a small amount of RAM will benefit the most from Optane Memory. In a future article, we'll show how Optane Memory increases total system performance in PCs with less DRAM.

Specifications

Optane Memory ships in two capacities of 16GB and 32GB. We're testing the 32GB module that offers more performance than the smaller 16GB model. The drive uses a small, highly optimized controller and two 16GB 3D XPoint packages. Intel hasn't confirmed the number of channels, but we suspect the PCIe 3.0 x2 controller exposes a single channel to the 3D XPoint memory. Unlike normal SSDs, 3D XPoint doesn't require DRAM for the translation layer.

The 32GB model is capable of up to 1,350 MB/s of sequential read throughput, but only provides 290 MB/s for sequential writes. That drops to 900/145 MB/s sequential read/write speeds for the smaller 16GB device. The drives are built to accelerate random workloads, but the focus is on random read performance. The 32GB Optane Memory device achieves up to 240,000 random read IOPS, while the 16GB drive is capable of up to 190,000 IOPS. Random write performance tops out at 65,000 IOPS for the 32GB module, and 35,000 IOPS for the 16GB variant.

System Requirements For Optane Memory

Intel certified Optane Memory on 7th-generation Intel Core processors and the 200-Series chipset. We were able to use the physical device with a Core i7-6700K and Z170 motherboard, but Intel doesn’t officially support that combination.

Intel stated at a meeting in Folsom, California that the 200-Series chipset has built-in optimizations for Optane Memory, and it also includes an additional four lanes of PCIe 3.0. Several motherboard vendors recently released Z270 BIOS updates tuned for Optane Memory. We'll examine our test system setup on the following page.

A Closer Look

The Optane Memory module comes in an industry-standard single-sided M.2 2280 form factor. 3D XPoint memory is fast enough to achieve high performance rates while reading and writing to a single die (and remember, that's without requiring DRAM). The mysterious controller is smaller than most NAND-based SSD controllers and appears to be purpose-built for Optane Memory.

While the 32GB module uses two 3D XPoint packages with a single 16GB die inside each, the 16GB module uses a single package, but it offers less performance and capacity for frequently accessed data.

The label spans across the two 3D XPoint packages and features a copper layer to spread and dissipate heat.

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38 comments
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  • Joe Black
    Some nice figures, but not quite what I expected from the hype. Not sure if its amazing enough that it warrants a whole exclusive series with special motherboards et al.
  • SoFlaWill
    Barnum would be proud
  • martinisv2
    What about an SHHD like the Seagate with 8gb cache?
  • Brian_R170
    The performance is better than I expected, but if I'm reading it right, the supported target market consists of desktops with 200-series chipsets and mechanical hard drives. That market just seems way too small. Am I missing something?

    Wake me up when the rumored Intel 900p Optane SSD starts sampling in 500GB and larger sizes.
  • dstarr3
    581199 said:
    What about an SHHD like the Seagate with 8gb cache?


    This far exceeds the bandwidth of the SATA port you'd plug such a hard drive into, so you'd see no benefit over the SSHDs currently on the market.
  • TheFuzzz
    wonder how well they honor that 5 year warranty.
  • gdmaclew
    Target market seems a little small (intentionally?).
    I know this is early in the game but this has a slight RAMBUS smell to it. I hope I'm wrong.
    I'll feel better when Intel at least offers licensing to other platforms (AMD).
  • hannibal
    In few year the support come to all PC platforms. And if this makes my hdd look like very fast ssd in normal usage... not bad at all.
    Am I wrong if the maximum size that the cache support is still 64Gb? Hopefully there will be that size too Sooner than later. Then there would be less cache misses.
  • stairmand
    The problem I have is that I bought hybrid drives before and they were always a bit disappointing. The were mostly good but often crappy, not sure I'd want to tread that path again.
  • JamesSneed
    So if you have a 200-series chip set and a hard drive today this would be a really cheap storage upgrade. Interesting to see it doesn't really matter in real world testing as long as you are not using a spinning hard drive by itself regardless if its an nvme drive or Optane.
  • coldmast
    Are these any good as a SLOG write cache on ZFS? Googled answer is NO due to slow writes (not enough for 10GbE). However, these are read optimised so they might be good for L2ARC (AKA read cache's read cache). Time will tell for Optane as it is good to have another technology in the mix. (Is it too much to ask for a cheap, write-rugged 8GB SLOG?)
  • DavidC1
    "This far exceeds the bandwidth of the SATA port you'd plug such a hard drive into, so you'd see no benefit over the SSHDs currently on the market."

    Yes it would. The Optane Memory device is on its on NVMe port. Unless you are suggesting of a future possible variant of an SSHD with Optane instead of NAND cache then you'd be right, sorta. The low queue depth performance would still be there even if its on SATA.

    They do say SSHD is one of the devices you can pair with to get increased performance. Heck, they say even SATA SSDs can benefit from it, of course the benefit would be small.

    Optane is a far better cache than NAND SSD cache not only because of its better low queue depth performance but because it does not suffer from performance degradation when "dirty" as illustrated here: http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/intel-optane-3d-xpoint-p4800x,5030-5.html
  • TomHaX
    How does it compare to the gold standard now: Samsung 960 PRO 2TB with sequential read/write speeds of 3,500/2,100 MB/sec, random read/write speeds of 440,000/50,000 IOPS and 5 years warranty (or 1,200 TBW, whatever comes first).
    Check out:
    Intel crosses an unacceptable ethical line
    http://semiaccurate.com/2017/03/27/intel-crosses-unacceptable-ethical-line
  • daglesj
    Designed for cheap machines still using a HDD? So if OEMs will skimp on not putting a SSD inside in the first place why would they bother to install this for $20 extra a box when the cheapass customer doesn't really care anyway? This product makes no sense for the supposed market Intel is pushing it. This is like offering supercharger kits to makers of budget hatchbacks. The customers don't want it in the first place.
  • jimmysmitty
    1353159 said:
    Some nice figures, but not quite what I expected from the hype. Not sure if its amazing enough that it warrants a whole exclusive series with special motherboards et al.


    I think this is a first step. They need to recoup the R&D somehow and it is a leg up over the competition as AMD doesn't have anything equivalent currently.

    Right now CPUs are at a wall that neither has really broken nor will for a few more generations or until some crazy breakthrough happens. Until then the rest of the system needs to catch up. SSDs provided that jump start and now NVMe SSDs on M.2 are pushing it even further.

    One problem is cost though. Due to issues with newer types NAND has been going up instead of down. Hopefully that will change sooner rather than later. I am still waiting to switch out my 4TB worth of magnetic drives to a 4TB SSD but don't want to pay the crazy price right now.

    60597 said:
    In few year the support come to all PC platforms. And if this makes my hdd look like very fast ssd in normal usage... not bad at all. Am I wrong if the maximum size that the cache support is still 64Gb? Hopefully there will be that size too Sooner than later. Then there would be less cache misses.


    I think the biggest thing will be once NVDIMMS are ready. If this can pack 256GB into a few sticks I would gladly move to it for an OS drive, especially if they can get it to utilize the bandwidth that memory channels that would be a massive jump from even current NVMe/PCIe SSDs.

    2276658 said:
    How does it compare to the gold standard now: Samsung 960 PRO 2TB with sequential read/write speeds of 3,500/2,100 MB/sec, random read/write speeds of 440,000/50,000 IOPS and 5 years warranty (or 1,200 TBW, whatever comes first). Check out: Intel crosses an unacceptable ethical line http://semiaccurate.com/2017/03/27/intel-crosses-unacceptable-ethical-line


    I don't think it is unethical in any way. Intel is by no means required to provide the information to journalists and journalists shouldn't even rely on that anyways as it normally is just marketing. When Intel/AMD states "XX%" above "XX" a journalist should be skeptical until they test it themselves. Even if they point out it should be better in "XX" situation.
  • CRamseyer
    Maybe they just want to spread the 3D XPoint gospel?

    There are messaging issues all over the place. It took us a little while to even figure out what was going on with the inner workings due to some of the software tools crashing.
  • dudmont
    I'll get excited about this technology when the interfaces catch up to it. PCIEx4 are quite fast and benefit zero from optane compared to standared mlc nand, or the differences in latency are so small that a normal human won't possibly notice. We would need interfaces that have virtually unlimited throughput before optane would show any kind of serious advantage over nand based storage.
  • CRamseyer
    That is not exactly correct. I loaded an OS on just the Optane drive today and it is noticeably faster (responsive) than flash.
  • CaptainTom
    God I am just so disappointed by how far Xpoint has underdelivered.

    I remember a couple years ago when Intel advertised this as "DRAM-fast storage! 1000x faster than SSD's". Then a year went by and they never clarified which RAM or SSD's they were talking about. Every time someone asked them, they quoted smaller and smaller numbers.


    Now we're at the release, and it's just twice as fast as a bloody standard SSD! Good lord it can't even claim faster speeds than a bargain bin PCIE SSD.
  • CRamseyer
    I wouldn't be so quick to write it off. Intel won't disclose the number of channels of the Optane Memory device. A single die flash device with a single channel would be fairly slow. We'll know more when the consumer Optane SSD comes later this year.
  • ohim
    I`m better off with buying a SSD than this ...
  • Uniblab
    Since optane comes in different flavors: Enterprise, RST and eventually consumer ssd's, shoudnt the title of the review reflect this. There are a few reviews on the enterprise model@375gig and the difference is notable - even though they were tested on intels servers. This is a review on the add on card, not the final version that will appeal to geek types. So yes, its optane memory. But no its not an ssd that should perform at 10x what is expected of mid to better performing ssd's. When a optane ssd comes out, what will you call that review?
  • sephirotic
    What a ridiculous throughput. So much time waiting for this disapointment. Yes, IOS and latency are important but without proper throughput this seems utterly pointless, specially for people that work with video like me. Who the hell would have a 200 series motherboard with a mechanical os drive and still willing to pay 50usd for measly 16gb of cache? Jesus christ, no thanks Ill get a 960 m2 instead.
  • jimmysmitty
    212965 said:
    What a ridiculous throughput. So much time waiting for this disapointment. Yes, IOS and latency are important but without proper throughput this seems utterly pointless, specially for people that work with video like me. Who the hell would have a 200 series motherboard with a mechanical os drive and still willing to pay 50usd for measly 16gb of cache? Jesus christ, no thanks Ill get a 960 m2 instead.


    You can get a 960 M.2 for $50 bucks?

    Still missing the point. Since 2TBs of SSD is still not cheap and video editing takes a ton of space this is not a bad idea as a scratch drive or cache for those who need that extra storage space.