Intel’s Optane technology promises to revolutionize the way we store and access data — but what exactly is it? Intel’s been rather secretive about how it works, but long story short, it provides much faster read and write speeds than even the fastest SSD can match, without RAM’s constant power requirement.
Indeed, Intel is making huge promises regarding Optane’s potential, and on paper, it’s an impressive feat that could change the way we read and write data. Users who want a piece of that action don’t have many options at the moment, however, and not much is known about Optane’s technical aspects.
Where can you find it?
At the time of this writing, there are only two actual, physical products powered by Intel Optane. The first to appear was Intel’s DC 4800X SSD. That name isn’t catchy, because it doesn’t have to be. It’s an enterprise product, where potential buyers are far more concerned with dollars per performance than branding or aesthetics.
Despite the name, this PCIe-based SSD wasn’t even really meant to act as enterprise storage — it was actually designed to replace DRAM in servers. There are situations where users needed a ton of memory — on the order of terabytes — where that would have been prohibitively expensive. While Optane solutions can’t quite match current volatile memory speeds, they certainly do a better job standing in for it than a 3D NAND SSD, so the storage can be assigned as addressable memory. The drives are only available in 375GB models, and only to companies working with Intel directly, for $1,520.
At the other end of the spectrum, Intel Optane Memory attempts to fill a similar role in consumer systems. Intel’s suite of Optane firmware and software automatically keeps the most commonly used files on that drive, giving old HDDs a boost of speed. We spent some time with the drive, and found that its use in enthusiast systems is limited. However, it certainly beats using just a mechanical drive and no SSD, something we don’t recommend when buying a new system.
Under the hood
So what exactly is Intel Optane? Well, we aren’t quite sure, because Intel won’t tell us. The company has even responded to questions of the underlying materials with cagey answers and “no comments,” which leaves us wondering what sort of digital witchcraft powers this fast, non-volatile storage.
What we do know is rather basic. Optane is based on a previously announced Intel and Micron project knows as 3D XPoint, and the details quickly grow complex from there. In essence, it allows for greater speeds by changing the resistance across bits in large batches, rather than one at a time, and packs in more of that memory by stacking the arrays in rows, which are turned 90 degrees on each layer. The image below lays out an example of how this looks at a microscopic level.
Don’t confuse 3D XPoint with 3D NAND, however, which is simply flash memory stacked in more efficient configurations. Instead, 3D XPoint operates on (possibly) different materials, with proprietary forms of data storage and transfer, the details of which are a closely guarded secret.
It also isn’t the end of the story, because 3D XPoint is just the storage type, while Optane is a collection of first-party Intel hardware, firmware, and software that turns that mysterious chunk of whatever-it-is into a device that’s usable in a myriad of situations. We saw that with the first two implementations, which couldn’t be more different.
The next episode
Intel Optane’s humble beginnings aren’t indicative of the big things to come. Intel says consumer SSDs based on the technology will roll out later this year, and have the potential to change the way we think about data access. What exactly these products will look like remains a mystery, much like the tech that powers them.
For now, we advise waiting to see what the future holds. Intel’s Optane Memory didn’t quite hold up to our expectations, especially considering the low cost of SATA SSDs, and the limited compatibility with all but the newest Intel processors and chipsets, although it’s a huge improvement over just using an HDD, something we don’t recommend in a new system. It’s a promising start, however, and we’ll make sure to keep this post updated as new information becomes available.