Optane prices debut at 3x NAND SSDs
FOLSOM, Calif. — Intel Corp. announced its first solid-state drives using its 3D XPoint memory chips. The Optane SSDs are expected to establish a small, but significant, beachhead for the technology, which is one of several alternatives pioneering a new market between flash and DRAM chips.
The DC P4800X is a server drive riding the NVMe interface, initially available in a 375-GByte version that lists for a retail price of $1,520, about three times the cost of a similar NAND card. It delivers less than 20-microsecond read-and-write latencies and a 30-disk-writes/day endurance with an estimated three-year lifetime.
Intel will ship before the end of the year 750-GByte and 1.5-TByte versions with an estimated five-year lifetime. All will be available in 2.5-inch U.2 and add-in card form factors.
The SSD’s performance varies widely from 2.5 to 77x better than NAND drives, depending on workloads. The drives generally beat NAND SSDs easily on read performance but are a closer match on writes that vary depending on use of buffers.
Initial targets are broad but include metadata key-value searches, transaction processing, logging/journaling, and in-memory databases. Intel will sell software to spoof applications and operating systems into treating the SSDs as main memory, replacing or augmenting DRAM.
Intel’s Optane controller chip supports seven channels, and performance is best with an even die-to-channel loading, a spokesman said. The initial 375 GByte drive uses four media die per channel, or 28 die total.
Some Optane drive capacity outside user space is dedicated to ECC, firmware, and metadata to ensure similar reliability as NAND SSDs. However, Optane drives do not support overcapacity used in NAND SSDs because 3D XPoint is a write-in-place media not subject to NAND’s fragmentation, the spokesman added.
Intel declined to forecast sales of the new drives. However, it currently hopes to fill its joint-venture fab with Micron in Lehi, Utah, by the end of the year with 3D XPoint chips for the Optane and Micron Quantx SSDs that use it.
The fab is currently running less than 10,000 3D XPoint wafers/month. Micron announced its Quantx drives in August. So far Micron hasn't announced specs, prices or availability of its SSDs but said they will ship for revenue this year.
A storage executive with Hewlett Packard Enterprise that expects to use Optane in servers and flash arrays estimated that the new drives could make up 5–10% of the SSDs that it buys next year. Storage analyst Alan Niebel of Web-feet Research (Monterey, California) estimated Intel’s 2017 sales at about $100 million.
One wild card is how widely that big web data centers adopt the drives. Facebook expressed support for 3D XPoint a year ago and is working on supporting the RocksDB software that enables it. However, at this year’s Open Compute event, a Facebook representative had no update on its plans for the SSDs.
At a launch event, Intel shared a quote from a manager of Alibaba’s data centers. He expressed enthusiasm for re-architecting the company’s search engines to make use of the Optane SSDs. It also listed China’s TenCent and server OEMs Dell EMC and Lenovo as supporters.
Niebel said that the initial specs and prices were reasonable and in line with expectations. Intel’s software to enable use as main memory paves an important path for DIMM cards, with 3D XPoint expected next year, he said.
Next page: 3D XPoint DIMMs already sampling
Optane delivers fast writes as workloads grow. Click to enlarge. Source: Intel.
3D XPoint DIMMs already sampling
Optane is optimized for the low queue depths that Intel says are common in data centers. (Source: Intel)
A handful of startups are starting to ship their own alternatives using magnetic and resistive RAM architectures, generally targeting more niche applications. Western Digital, now the parent of SanDisk, said in August that it will ship a ReRAM by the end of the decade.
“This is an important day on the journey, but this is just the beginning,” said Al Fazio, an Intel senior fellow and director of memory technology development, who calls himself Mr. 3D XPoint. “We’re sampling into DIMMs now.”
The chips need “less than 50% performance” improvements for use in DIMMs, something that should come from improving yields, he said. “Building the [DIMM] infrastructure is gating item, not the media.”
Materials science was the focus of most of the decade on 3D XPoint to date, Fazio said. The key was finding and developing the right combination of materials for the chip, especially the selector diode which needs to work at the low temperatures of a CMOS back-end process.
At 128 Gbits, the first chip is well above today’s DRAMs in density and only one or two generations behind NAND. However, Intel and Micron faced unexpected delays getting products out after announcing 3D XPoint with much fanfare in July 2015.
It takes time to characterize new materials for power and yield parameters, said Eli Harari, retired founder of SanDisk and a pioneer of flash memory. “Intel should be looking at opening up the memory and making processor-in-memory chips.”
Unlike some potential rivals, 3D XPoint was not designed for use as an embedded memory. “This was architected for high capacity, low latency, and low cost,” Fazio said.
“There are billions of dollars of opportunity here, and we are willing to invest to go get that,” said Rob Crooke, general manager of Intel’s non-volatile memory group.
— Rick Merritt, Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, EE Times