Intel announces Optane, the first solid-state drive based on its 3D Xpoint memory

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Intel Corp. on Sunday announced an entirely new kind of storage device based on its new 3D Xpoint memory technology that’s designed to bridge the gap between low-cost NAND memory typically found in all-flash storage systems and the higher-performance memory known as DRAM.

The Intel Optane SSD DC P4800X is a solid-state drive designed for data center workloads, offering what Intel said is a much faster storage solution to handle larger amounts of data without spending a fortune on dedicated DRAM.

Optane is Intel’s brand name for storage devices based on the new 3D Xpoint memory technology that it jointly developed with partner firm Micron Technology Inc. It’s a kind of non-volatile memory, one that can retain data without power, that’s similar to flash yet offers better performance, though details on how it actually works remain a bit scarce.

Micron did share some details at the Flash Memory Summit last August, explaining how the technology is based on new materials with a three-dimensional “cross point” architecture that’s able to deliver a thousandfold increase in non-volatile memory speeds. The companies developed what they call “stackable memory grids” that maximize cell density, with the cross point architecture providing access to each individual cell, doing away with the need for transistors.

The architecture basically mimics a kind of three-dimensional checkerboard with cells located at the intersection of bit and word lines. That configuration enables memory cells to be addressed individually, so that data can be written and read in small chunks, vastly speeding up the read/write process.

The key point is that, like flash memory but unlike DRAM, 3D Xpoint retains its data without a power source while producing high speeds and low latency that put even the fastest so-called NVMe drives to shame.

When Intel and Micron first announced 3D Xpoint, they made some extravagant claims, saying it would be 1,000 times faster than NAND flash and 10 times denser than DRAM. They also claimed 1,000 times more endurance than NAND, though this is harder to verify. Now the company is reiterating these claims with the SSD DC P4800X, boasting one-thousandth the latency of NAND flash and 10 times the density of DRAM.

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Intel also claims the SSD DC P4800X is between eight and 40 times more responsive under load compared with its previous SD DC P3700s, which makes it a higher-performance replacement for the older technology.

In addition, Intel said, the SSD DC P4800X is an excellent memory extender option. That’s because 3D Xpoint can be used in a memory pool alongside DRAM without needing to adjust the operating system or applications. It’s a use case that represents a distinct change from the way data centers currently leverage SSDs.

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Intel said that for select workloads, up to 90 percent of DRAM can be replaced with its Optane SSDs. It cited the example of a dual-Xeon server with 678 gigabytes of RAM running a 675-GB MySQL database in its tests, and managed to replace all but 128 GB of the RAM with a couple of Optane 375-GB drives, with a resulting 20 percent drop-off in database performance.

Intel is promising to release higher-capacity Optane drives that would give a dual-socket Xeon system up to 24 terabytes of memory, while a quad-socket system would max out at 48 TB of memory.

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The company said its Optane SSDs are targeted at modern workloads such as data analytics, machine learning and in-memory databases. Exactly how the technology will be received remains to be seen, though.

Shortly after Intel and Micron first announced 3D Xpoint, David Floyer, chief technology officer with Wikibon (the analyst group owned by the same company as SiliconANGLE) penned a cautionary note saying that the partners will need to generate significant volume demand for the product if it’s to succeed in dislodging conventional memory technologies. He added that 3D XPoint is unlikely to become a replacement for NAND Flash anytime soon because of its cost, though it has a fair chance of displacing DRAM by virtue of its superior power efficiency.

For starters, the Intel Optane SSD DC P4800X is being made available today for select early customers as a 375-GB add-in card (pictured). In the second half of this year, the company will also make 750-GB and 1.5-TB cards available. Intel said it’s also planning to produce dedicated memory modules based on 3D Xpoint.

Photo: Intel