Intel’s Optane Comes to CAD Workstations — for a Price

31 Dec, 2018 By: Alex Herrera

Herrera on Hardware: It’s not cheap yet, but Optane technology improves performance on several fronts, especially for high-demand storage solutions.


After performance, think density. Thanks to its ability to be stacked in package, Intel claims comparable density to NAND with up to 10X the density of DRAM. But of course, high performance and density don’t mean much if 3D XPoint can’t at least match NAND in terms of endurance. From this standpoint, Optane looks good as well, outperforming Intel’s typical NAND flash (MLC/TLC) endurance by a factor of 2.8X (i.e., it can write 2.8 times the number of bytes over its lifetime at a similar capacity).

With those characteristics, 3D XPoint technology and Optane products can claim a previously unoccupied position in the traditional memory hierarchy, sitting between DRAM and NAND SSDs justified by significant advantages over both: far lower latency (especially worst-case access) than NAND, but far more capacity than DRAM.

Delivering on 3D XPoint’s performance claims certainly justifies a valuable new position on the existing memory hierarchy between DRAM and NAND. Image courtesy of Intel.

Optane Memory to Boot

With 3D XPoint technology performing a lot closer to DRAM, while delivering the persistence DRAM can’t, why not use 3D XPoint as memory? Its relatively high speed with persistence can make it an effective memory cache for large, frequently used datasets that would otherwise reside in (and have to be paged in from) slower storage drives.

To augment DRAM with Optane technology, Intel offers Optane memory in PCIe M.2 its Memory Drive Technology. A hypervisor layer introduced at boot up, Memory Drive Technology abstracts a combination of DRAM and Optane into a single unified (and volatile) pool of memory. That allows architects to custom-tailor memory subsystems leveraging the respective strengths of DRAM and 3D XPoint memory, with no changes to either the OS or application required. Furthermore, users can “pin” applications, files, or folders to Optane persistent memory space.

Will Optane Find a Long-Term Home in Workstations?

I see the impact of Intel’s development of 3D XPoint and delivery to market of Optane products from both short- and long-term perspectives. In the short term, the big takeaway is that Intel has delivered on a major goal and is finding a modicum of short-term success in datacenters, and is now expanding its focus to high-performance workstations. It’s brought 3D XPoint from a risky proposition with no guarantee of success to a producible technology, and has delivered the first Optane product as a result.

Looking at performance (especially load-tolerant latency with excellent QoS), persistence (non-volatile), density, and endurance (life of reliable access), 3D XPoint can legitimately span the gap between DRAM memory and today’s NAND flash. And it presents a compelling proposition for many — perhaps especially big cloud providers, but also buyers of higher-end CAD workstations.

Still, Optane’s current price premium over conventional NAND flash is tempering uptake. As of this writing, configuring an HP Z8 workstation shows a 256-GB NAND SSD costing around $309, while a 280-GB Optane SSD will set you back $739 (both M.2 PCIe). On one hand, that $400+ difference sounds prohibitive to most buyers, given the total selling price for a deskside workstation is now less than $1,900. But on the other hand, I’m impressed at how quickly a technology that represents as much of a departure as Optane does has come that close to mainstream NAND.

Expect to see more Optane configuration options like this one for HP’s Z8 workstation — and expect the price premium over NAND to drop over time. Image courtesy of HP.

In the long term, 3D XPoint technology could eventually be that game-changing disruptor Intel is really after: one that fundamentally transforms the decades-old memory tradeoffs imposed by our current memory hierarchy and becomes ubiquitous across the computing spectrum. Yes, the price premium will limit the number of CAD workstation buyers taking the plunge on Optane storage. But CAD professionals are very appropriate candidates for eventual adoption of the technology, because more than the vast majority of client-side computing applications, CAD workloads are rife with big, complex data sets. So ultimately, how broad Optane’s acceptance becomes will depend on getting 3D XPoint even closer to price parity with NAND. If Intel can at least get close, then Optane may become as a default a choice for CAD professionals as NAND SSDs are today.

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About the Author: Alex Herrera

Alex Herrera

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