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Optane in Its Cheapest, and Possibly, Best Form Right Now

Intel made several Optane product announcements over the past couple of weeks, including high-end NVMe-based add-in-cards targeting enterprise servers. Optane is the commercial product name for 3D XPoint (pronounced “cross point”), next generation non-volatile storage technologies. Optane promises far higher performance and endurance compared to NAND, but even as far back as Intel and Micron’s joint technology announcement back in 2015, both companies believe the new technology to exist as a new tier of storage and will not likely reach cost levels to become a direct replacement for NAND in the long run.

TRENDFOCUS believes that enterprise solutions using Optane are a long-term development project, requiring significant re-architecting of server platforms if the technology is used either as straight storage, or some kind of storage class memory. Perhaps understanding this long road to penetrating the enterprise, Intel has taken another approach, offering low-capacity Optane modules as a high-speed cache for PCs using HDDs for storage. Gamespot.com published a review of a mid-range reference design PC using a 1 TB, 7,200rpm HDD in combination with a 32 GB M.2 Optane module. A couple of key points – the 32 GB module lists for $77, as stated by Intel in the article, while a 16 GB version will sell for $44.

The article is worth reading for the full details, but the bottom line conclusion is that Optane used as a PC cache provides significant performance benefits across a range of tests. Write-heavy tests were not as fast as most SSDs, although the addition of Optane did raise disk-based write benchmarks by 80 percent over the HDD alone. Read-heavy tests showed that the Optane-enabled system was four to eight times faster across many tests.

While Optane is only supported with Intel’s latest seventh-generation Core processors (Kaby Lake) on an Optane-compatible motherboard with an M.2 socket, many buyers of new mid-range HDD-only PCs – especially desktop PC models – can add an Optane module after the fact to achieve a significant performance boost for a relatively modest upgrade cost (lower than the current price of most 256 GB SATA SSD today) and with essentially no complicated system re-configuration.

Intel will not make a huge business peddling low-capacity Optane modules to aftermarket upgraders, but the solution will be of interest to PC enthusiasts and establish the first of potentially several significant end-markets for the technology over the coming decade.

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