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Understanding Intel Optane

Intel’s new high-density, nonvolatile storage technology delivers dramatic performance gains. How heavily should system builders bet on its long-term acceptance? By James E. Gaskin

INTEL APPLIES THE WORD “memory” to the Optane technology it began shipping in March. In truth, though, Optane isn’t quite memory and isn’t quite storage, but a hybrid that according to its manufacturer can be used in either capacity.

The critical question is will it be?

Optane is Intel’s implementation of the 3D XPoint (pronounced “cross-point”) technology it co-developed with Micron Technology Inc., of Boise, Idaho. A high-density, nonvolatile storage medium, Optane is designed to be a slower alternative to DRAM that’s nevertheless faster than both traditional hard disk drives and NAND-based solid-state drives.

According to Intel, in fact, PCs that use Optane enjoy 14 times faster storage performance and up to a 28 percent overall performance boost. They also boot up to twice as quickly, launch games up to 67 percent faster, and start Microsoft Outlook up to 500 percent faster.

Intel may have hit a soft spot in the market with Optane, according to Jim McGregor, principal analyst at TIRIAS Research. “DDR5 will be several more years coming,” he says of the DRAM standard slated to succeed today’s DDR3 and DDR4. “The higher the performance needed, the higher the likelihood you’ll try something like this.”

Announced prices for the new technology are $44 for a 16GB module and $77 for 32GB. Users must pair either with 7th Generation Intel Core (i.e., Kaby Lake) processors and an Optane-ready motherboard. ASRock, ASUS, GIGABYTE, MSI, and others offer such products already. Don’t expect them to come cheap though.

“Manufacturers will charge appropriately,” warns Mark Geenen, president of research group TRENDFOCUS Inc. “You don’t give away performance.”

Intel, however, might at least discount it. The company has a history of bundling its processors and SSDs at competitive prices. “Combination with this third item could allow them more combo deals to make it more cost-effective,” Geenen says.

Adoption Hurdles Remain

Optane faces serious adoption barriers just the same, including its proprietary architecture. “The last time Intel tried to ‘ram’ a memory standard down industry throats, RDRAM, the industry revolted and went with DDR,” McGregor says. “There’s pushback from the industry right now.”

Another issue? The different approaches taken by Intel with Optane and Micron with QuantX, the alternative 3D XPoint implementation it’s expected to introduce later this year. “Intel talks only about clients, and Micron doesn’t want to talk about clients at all, just servers,” Geenen observes.

As McGregor adds, though, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for hardware makers. “Most profit comes from servers, and server sales are still going up,” he says. “Clients find it less onerous to go with a proprietary technology for large-scale deployments.”

Even so, the strategic misalignment between 3D XPoint’s co-inventors leave some device makers uneasy.

“There’s obviously some friction between Intel and Micron,” McGregor says. “Micron could go off and work with other vendors to develop a better open standard.”

According to Geenen, OEMs may approach Optane the same way they did Intel’s Ultrabook push a few years ago. “The vendors all took the marketing development funds, made a model or two, and kept the rest of the money,” he says, adding that he’s reluctant to offer market forecasts for Optane as a result.

“Volumes happen with multiple vendors pushing the same technology,” he notes. “Buyers like second options.”

System builders should take their cues from the big manufacturers, adds McGregor. “If the name brands buy in, resellers and custom builders should as well.”

That probably won’t happen soon, however. “It will be years before Optane makes a significant impact,” says Geenen.

Still, Optane isn’t a minor offering from an obscure company full of custom drivers. Integrating and marketing the product should be fairly easy. Many buyers will find Intel’s portrait of Optane as technology that offers big performance gains for a small added price persuasive too. System builders who serve early adopters and performance-sensitive businesses might want to start a pilot project or two now.

Image source: Intel

About the Author

James E. Gaskin's picture

JAMES E. GASKIN is a ChannelPro contributing editor and former reseller based in Dallas.

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