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Is Optane memory really cost effective when it comes to speed?

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April 26, 2017

There's been a lot of talk lately about the benefits of Optane memory, but if you're designing a motherboard or similar apparatus, the question really is: in terms of speed, is that type of memory cost effective over other memory chips?

As might be expected, several market reports have come out on Optane memory to coincide with retail availability, but none of them answer the 'is it cost-effectively faster than flash?' question.

To be sure, Optane is Intel's branded non-volatile 3D XPoint memory, which has lower latency access and higher endurance than NAND.

Two weeks ago, we saw some reviews of the standalone 375 GB P-4800X Optane SSDs which were based on remote access to an Optane SSD design in Intel's facilities, a server featuring a P-4800X and a P-3700 SSD implementation for comparison.

The PC Perspective reviewer notes-- "It's worth pointing out that this testing method isn't ideal and is not something we would have recommend or suggested to Intel."

Then, the Anandtech P-4800X reviewer said: "3D XPoint memory has better endurance than NAND flash, but not enough to get away without wear levelling."

Interestingly, the reviewer found-- "Intel's 3D XPoint memory does not have large multi-megabyte erase blocks, so a low-level format of the Optane SSD needs to directly write to the entire drive, which takes about as long as filling it sequentially. Thus, while a 2.4 TB flash SSD can perform a low-level format in just over thirteen seconds, the 375 GB Optane SSD DC P-4800X takes six minutes and 47 seconds. This is long enough that unsuspecting software tools or SSD reviewers will give up and assume that the drive has simply locked up."

Pricing for the P-4800X is about $1,520 or about $4 per GB-- more expensive than NAND, but it's not yet readily available.

Anandtech's review concludes-- "If your workload matches its strengths, the P-4800X offers an overall performance that cannot currently be provided by most other storage products. That means high throughput random access, as well as very strict latency requirements. The results Optane achieves for it's quality of service for latency on both reads and writes, especially in heavy environments with a mixed read/write workload, is a significant margin ahead of anything available on the market."

However, the Optane SSD is an expensive niche product. If you don't need high throughput random access with the strictest latency requirements, the Optane SSD DC P4800X may not be the best choice. It's rather expensive compared to most flash-based SSDs.

It is a version one product and can be expected to improve as well as having more detailed information about its power consumption become available.

But to be fair to Intel, the reviewers were generally unable to do comparative tests of a similar function and cheaper NAND cache and disk, because the Kaby Lake B-250 chipset used didn't support it. Although a comparison between a Samsung SSD and the Optane cache + HDD combo showed that the SSD was faster and more consistent, as it did not slow down whenever the cache had to be reloaded.

The Optane works as a write-back cache, with writes being cached in the Optane drive before being written to the paired disk drive, albeit in a slower manner.

Source: PC Perspective.


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