Intel is known for creating the processors that dominated a better part of the last decade. In addition, Intel also makes storage, both in a classic forms like SATA SSDs and NVMe PCIe SSDs and in a relatively recent innovation called Optane. With much to learn about Optane, this article answers the questions of what Intel Optane is and how it works.
What Is Intel Optane?
Optane is based on a technology called 3D Xpoint rather than the NAND flash or DRAM chips that power your typical SSD or system memory, respectively. Its original purpose was to serve as a high-speed cache for slower mechanical storage, but with the higher capacities, it’s now suitable to use as storage, given the higher capacities. Optane was originally released in small capacity M.2 80mm form factors of 16, 32, and 64 GB but has since been updated to include drives up to 1.5 TB.
Previously, Optane was limited to Intel’s newer platforms, but now it’s available on many different platforms, including AMD CPUs. It’s a great choice for your next Threadripper workstation, for example.
How Does Intel Optane Work?
Given the 3D Xpoint chips, Optane is able to strike an interesting performance balance between a typical NVMe SSD and system RAM. Most people know that system memory is much faster and more responsive than a typical SSD and especially faster than a typical HDD. However, system memory is volatile, which means that when it loses power, all of the information that was stored there is gone. The responsiveness of system memory comes at the cost of volatility, which is where storage comes in.
Optane’s 3D Xpoint chips lie somewhere between RAM and NVMe SSDs in that they’re much more responsive than your average SSD but not as responsive as RAM, all while being non-volatile, so they store information like an SSD does. NVMe SSDs are much better for sequential operations like reading and writing a lot of data to a drive at once, but for random access tasks, Optane is the king.
This is because of a performance measure that you don’t often hear about called IOPS, or Input/Output Operations per Second. This measures the random access capabilities of a storage device, which is slightly more indicative of system responsiveness when using a computer for normal desktop uses.
Let’s look at a real-world example.
The king of PCIe 3.0 NVMe SSDs at the moment is the Samsung 970 Evo family. One of these drives boasts sequential reads of 3,400 MB and sequential writes of about 2,500 MB at maximum of a 1 TB, but it does depend on your capacity a little bit. By contrast, a comparable Optane drive only has sequential reads of 2,600 MB and sequential writes of 2,200 MB.
However, when we look at IOPS, the 970 Evo clocks in at a max of 500,000 IOPS random write and 450,000 IOPS random read at a queue depth (the queue depth is the number of pending operations for a given volume. The lower the queue depth, the lower the IOPS) of 32 and 15,000 and 50,000 respectively at a queue depth of 1. Optane measures in at 575,000 IOPS random write and 550,000 IOPS random write at a queue depth of 16, even on smaller-capacity drives that historically perform worse in this regard. The fact that Optane can outperform a 970 Evo at that low of a queue depth is unbelievable.
The price of that performance is, in fact, price. A 1 TB 970 Evo from Samsung will run you about $130, depending on where you look. A comparable Optane 960 GB 905p starts at around $1,262. There are smaller drives that may be a little more reasonable, but a 380 GB version of that 905p is around $505 for a 110 MM M.2 form factor, which likely won’t fit on most motherboards not made within the last three years.
Who Needs Optane?
In general, if you can afford Optane, you should install your OS on it. The random read and write performance is really incredible, and it improves system responsiveness drastically. However, if you can’t afford Optane, a really high-quality NVMe SSD like the 970 Evo is a really great choice.
If you enjoyed this storage article, make sure to check out some of our other storage content, like the things you must do when running an SSD on Windows 10, how to choose a filesystem for your SSD in Linux, and SSDs vs. SSHDs – are hybrid drives worth it in 2020?