Last week, Intel officially launched their first Optane product, the SSD DC P4800X enterprise drive. This week, 3D XPoint memory comes to the client and consumer market in the form of the Intel Optane Memory product, a low-capacity M.2 NVMe SSD intended for use as a cache drive for systems using a mechanical hard drive for primary storage.

The Intel Optane Memory SSD uses one or two single-die packages of 3D XPoint non-volatile memory to provide capacities of 16GB or 32GB. The controller gets away with a much smaller package than most SSDs (especially PCIe SSD) since it only supports two PCIe 3.0 lanes and does not have an external DRAM interface. Because only two PCIe lanes are used by the drive, it is keyed to support M.2 type B and M slots. This keying is usually used for M.2 SATA SSDs while M.2 PCIe SSDs typically use only the M key position to support four PCIe lanes. The Optane Memory SSD will not function in a M.2 slot that provides only SATA connectivity. Contrary to some early leaks, the Optane Memory SSD uses the M.2 2280 card size instead of one of the shorter lengths. This makes for one of the least-crowded M.2 PCBs on the market even with all of the components on the top side.

The very low capacity of the Optane Memory drives limits their usability as traditional SSDs. Intel intends for the drive to be used with the caching capabilities of their Rapid Storage Technology drivers. Intel first introduced SSD caching with their Smart Response Technology in 2011. The basics of Optane Memory caching are mostly the same, but under the hood Intel has tweaked the caching algorithms to better suit 3D XPoint memory's performance and flexibility advantages over flash memory. Optane Memory caching is currently only supported on Windows 10 64-bit and only for the boot volume. Booting from a cached volume requires that the chipset's storage controller be in RAID mode rather than AHCI mode so that the cache drive will not be accessible as a standard NVMe drive and is instead remapped to only be accessible to Intel's drivers through the storage controller. This NVMe remapping feature was first added to the Skylake-generation 100-series chipsets, but boot firmware support will only be found on Kaby Lake-generation 200-series motherboards and Intel's drivers are expected to only permit Optane Memory caching with Kaby Lake processors.

Intel Optane Memory Specifications
Capacity 16 GB 32 GB
Form Factor M.2 2280 single-sided
Interface PCIe 3.0 x2 NVMe
Controller Intel unnamed
Memory 128Gb 20nm Intel 3D XPoint
Typical Read Latency 6 µs
Typical Write Latency 16 µs
Random Read (4 KB, QD4) 300k
Random Write (4 KB, QD4) 70k
Sequential Read (QD4) 1200 MB/s
Sequential Write (QD4) 280 MB/s
Endurance 100 GB/day
Power Consumption 3.5 W (active), 0.9-1.2 W (idle)
MSRP $44 $77
Release Date April 24

Intel has published some specifications for the Optane Memory drive's performance on its own. The performance specifications are the same for both capacities, suggesting that the controller has only a single channel interface to the 3D XPoint memory. The read performance is extremely good given the limitation of only one or two memory devices for the controller to work with, but the write throughput is quite limited. Read and write latency are very good thanks to the inherent performance advantage of 3D XPoint memory over flash. Endurance is rated at just 100GB of writes per day, for both 16GB and 32GB models. While this does correspond to 3-6 DWPD and is far higher than consumer-grade flash based SSDs, 3D XPoint memory was supposed to have vastly higher write endurance than flash and neither of the Optane products announced so far is specified for game-changing endurance. Power consumption is rated at 3.5W during active use, so heat shouldn't be a problem, but the idle power of 0.9-1.2W is a bit high for laptop use, especially given that there will also be a hard drive drawing power.

Intel's vision is for Optane Memory-equipped systems to offer a compelling performance advantage over hard drive-only systems for a price well below an all-flash configuration of equal capacity. The 16GB Optane Memory drive will retail for $44 while the 32GB version will be $77. As flash memory has declined in price over the years, it has gotten much easier to purchase SSDs that are large enough for ordinary use: 256GB-class SSDs start at around the same price as the 32GB Optane Memory drive, and 512GB-class drives are about the same as the combination of a 2TB hard drive and the 32GB Optane Memory. The Optane Memory products are squeezing into a relatively small niche for limited budgets that require a lot of storage and want the benefit of solid state performance without paying the full price of a boot SSD. Intel notes that Optane Memory caching can be used in front of hybrid drives and SATA SSDs, but the performance benefit will be smaller and these configurations are not expected to be common or cost effective.

The Optane Memory SSDs are now available for pre-order and are scheduled to ship on April 24. Pre-built systems equipped with Optane Memory should be available around the same time. Enthusiasts with large budgets will want to wait until later this year for Optane SSDs with sufficient capacity to use as primary storage. True DIMM-based 3D XPoint memory products are on the roadmap for next year.

Source: Intel

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  • Notmyusualid - Tuesday, March 28, 2017 - link

    Indeed, makes it a ho-hum launch.
  • lefty2 - Monday, March 27, 2017 - link

    Only supports Windows 10? There's no Linux support?
  • Billy Tallis - Monday, March 27, 2017 - link

    Intel's RST is a Windows-only piece of software. On a Linux system, you can use Optane Memory drives as ordinary NVMe SSDs, and take your pick of caching and volume management solutions: bcache, dm-cache, ZFS, etc.

    Intel's storage software situation on Windows is a mess because Windows doesn't have anything as flexible as the Linux general-purpose block device abstraction, and because Intel is still trying to enforce product segmentation by requiring certain CPUs.
  • garygech - Tuesday, March 28, 2017 - link

    All the profit in Mobile will be at the 10 nm node, and Optane will play a significant role if optimized and launched successfully. In the consumer and commercial markets, Linux is not a play. Hardware vendors need to compete with the I-phone and I-pad to stay pertinent. I personally use a Mac at home. I would say that Windows 10 is the premier computer operating system in the world based on total revenue, profit per unit shipped, as well as market share. I-OS is dominant in mobile in terms of profits, and Android dominant in mobile in terms of market share. Windows based storage systems remain the most proliferated systems in the world for the consumer market. Optane was released first in the server market, but the real model would be to enter the consumer space. So long as latency is low, bandwidth is high on new motherboards released with Cannon Lake, and Windows 10 future builds are optimized for Optane, the product might be a hit. If Intel fails to deliver in the lower power space, the product could be a flop. Microsoft has made it clear, it will no longer service Windows 7, and is moving on. Windows 10 is their future, that is how they feel and they have the firepower and the market presence to strong arm those who will not go along. 2018 may be another excellent Microsoft year, and if Intel hits the 10 nm node on x86, this might propel the market towards the Surface Pro 5 and other professional mobile solutions.
  • JoeyJoJo123 - Monday, March 27, 2017 - link

    Feels like a very limited product line with few applications to customers.

    1) If you're not on a 7th gen i-series CPU + 200 series chipset motherboard, Intel Optane WON'T WORK FOR YOU.

    2) If you're on a 7th gen i-series CPU + 200 series chipset motherboard AND you're not already using RAID AND you're not already using a different m.2 boot device, then Intel Optane MIGHT help your performance.

    It feels like a very limited Intel RST (Rapid Storage Technology) replacement. Lots of motherboards from Intel for the past few years supported RAID + SSD caching (even for RAIDed volumes) through this tool. Basically, with Intel RST, you could have bought a new PC and new larger capacity and faster SATA/m.2 SSD, but you still have a smaller/slower SSD + your HDD from your last build. With Intel RST you could install the OS on your new drive, plug in your old HDD(s) and old SSD, and then configure through Intel RST to cache the HDDs giving them a boost in responsiveness and allowing you to get some use out of older/smaller SSDs in the form of a tangible caching solution.

    Here, Optane is configured to be a caching solution (like Intel RST), but you're limited to brand spanking new hardware (and let's face it, given stagnating Intel performance upgrades year-after-year, even die-hard Intel fans are likely still on older platforms than the current newest), and it's basically only compatible with Intel Optane m.2 devices, for what is likely a minor speed boost in the form of caching for slower media such as SATA SSD or HDDs, but isn't compatible with caching RAIDed volumes.

    Like, this product is barely applicable to anyone. And even though Intel RST is readily applicable to lots of people, not many people bothered with it or knew about it even to this day.
  • Bullwinkle J Moose - Monday, March 27, 2017 - link

    It WAS a limited production......of demo units they couldn't give away, so they are being rebranded as consumer retail units (LOL)

    For the past 10 years, performance enthusiasts have been using SSD's for boot drives and games while keeping static (mostly unused) data on a second drive

    Caching a 2TB - 5400RPM static drive would result in a hit rate of less than 2% for data we hardly ever use anyway and caching a much faster SSD is pointless

    NOBODY on THIS planet should "currently" be booting to 2TB - 5400RPM platter drives that need caching!

    (Especially on Kaby Lake hardware with Windows 10)

    AnandTech should interview the GENIUS who thought selling X-Point demo units they couldn't give away was such a great idea.....

    After all, we haz many questions
  • JoeyJoJo123 - Monday, March 27, 2017 - link

    Intel RST's caching for the hard drive is still useful though. Say you have a 2TB HDD exclusively for hundreds of Steam game installs. Instead of manually installing games onto a separate disk (often the same SSD the OS is installed on) you can just write everything to the 2TB HDD volume. Intel RST could cache up to 64GB of data on an SSD, which while small, typically meant that your 2 - 3 most common Steam games would be entirely cached on the SSD without having to go back and forth on what's on the SSD and removing it back to the HDD after you've had your fun with the game.
  • MrSpadge - Monday, March 27, 2017 - link

    Actually SRT doesn't work per game, and neither per file, it operates on the block level. So you'd have the things you frequently use in those games cached, but nothing else. This makes the storage space a lot more useful than people think when comparing it with install sizes.
  • Notmyusualid - Tuesday, March 28, 2017 - link

    ....but however it works, it works very well.
  • Gothmoth - Tuesday, March 28, 2017 - link

    personally i would not waste a precious M.2 port on a cache device like this.
    maybe when our mainboards have 4 or 6 M.2 ports. :)

    i have one fast 1 TB M.2 SSD for the OS and 5 data disk (HDD) in my system.
    i don´t care much how fast the data disks are. they are for storage only.

    i don´t see this optane SSD creating much interest for most users.

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