Will Op­tane drives fi­nally ar­rive in 2017?

Maximum PC - - 2017 TECH PREVIEW -

There’s a per­for­mance bomb head­ing for the solid-state stor­age mar­ket. That’s what we said this time last year. But it never hap­pened. Not as we hoped, at least. To put it an­other way, In­tel and Mi­cron’s 3D XPoint mem­ory tech­nol­ogy, known as Op­tane when ap­plied to In­tel SSDs, never ma­te­ri­al­ized.

Of course, 3D XPoint is a rad­i­cal new type of mem­ory tech, not an in­cre­men­tal im­prove­ment, so it’s not ex­actly shock­ing that it’s tak­ing longer to hit the mar­ket than ex­pected. But be­fore we con­sider whether it will fi­nally ap­pear in 2017, it’s worth re­cap­ping why it’s so ex­cit­ing.

3D XPoint is a non-volatile mem­ory tech that’s claimed to be up to 1,000 times faster, 1,000 times more ro­bust, and 10 times denser than the con­ven­tional NAND flash found in ex­ist­ing SSDs. Stag­ger­ing stuff, but how does it work?

Un­like NAND flash, which is com­posed of mem­ory cells con­sist­ing of gates in which elec­trons are trapped, 3D XPoint uses elec­tri­cal re­sis­tance to store data. Each cell stores its bit of data via a sub­tle change in the con­duc­tive re­sis­tance of the cell ma­te­rial. A ben­e­fit is that this doesn’t re­quire a tran­sis­tor, and that means each cell can be smaller, so more can be packed into a given area of mem­ory chip. That means higher den­si­ties and more stor­age.

The other ma­jor dif­fer­ence is the fact that 3D XPoint’s mem­ory cells are ad­dress­able at the in­di­vid­ual bit level. That’s a dra­matic change from NAND, where whole blocks of mem­ory, usu­ally 16KB, must be pro­grammed to save just one bit of data. The con­se­quences for NAND flash are time-con­sum­ing read-mod­ify-write cy­cles, and the need for com­plex garbage col­lec­tion al­go­rithms. That’s all gone with 3D XPoint, which should mean mas­sively im­proved ran­dom ac­cess and IOPs per­for­mance.

Of course, much of that is the­o­ret­i­cal. Early demos have shown ran­dom-ac­cess per­for­mance around five times faster than a cur­rent top SSD. Not quite 1,000. But imag­ine if In­tel launched a CPU that was five times faster. Quite.

If that cov­ers the tech­ni­cal­i­ties, what’s the lat­est on any of us be­ing able to buy an SSD with 3D XPoint tech? The only thing we know for sure is that In­tel will be sell­ing its 3D XPoint SSDs un­der the Op­tane brand. There has been some de­bate over what form that will take, in­clud­ing im­pli­ca­tions that it would be a whole new mem­ory class, act­ing as a sort of high-speed cache, rather than mass stor­age.

More specif­i­cally, cer­tain sys­tem con­fig­u­ra­tions with an Op­tane drive will sup­port a soft­ware-de­fined cache hi­er­ar­chy, where the CPU’s ad­dress­able mem­ory space is a com­bi­na­tion of RAM and the SSD. But that tech is aimed more at heavy-duty database work than desk­top PCs. With that in mind, In­tel’s first step with Op­tane will be Op­tanebased testbeds de­signed for cloud com­put­ing. In­tel is part­ner­ing with Face­book to test the tech­nol­ogy, and it’s pos­si­ble the lat­ter is al­ready us­ing Op­tane to some ex­tent.

How­ever, the good news is that it’s prob­a­bly con­ven­tional Op­tane SSDs that will hit the mar­ket first. That’s be­cause us­ing 3D XPoint as a sys­tem cache re­quires the cre­ation and fine-tuning of a new soft­ware ab­strac­tion layer. Op­tane SSDs us­ing the 3D XPoint tech­nol­ogy could be plug and play with any mod­ern PC. The only ques­tion is when that will hap­pen. Back in mid-sum­mer, some In­tel road maps leaked, in­di­cat­ing a very-late 2016 launch. As we write th­ese words in the dy­ing days of 2016, that still hasn’t hap­pened.

More re­cently, there has been talk of Op­tane drives launch­ing with In­tel’s new Kaby Lake sev­enth-gen­er­a­tion Core pro­ces­sors. But just to re­ally con­fuse things, those Op­tane drives are mooted at 16GB and 32GB ca­pac­i­ties. In other words, so small that the im­pli­ca­tion is that they are cache drives, not mass stor­age SSDs.

The bot­tom line is that Op­tane isn’t out as we go to press, and it’s not clear when that will hap­pen, or what form it will take. We still think it will be a killer tech­nol­ogy—and, with any luck, 2017 will be the year it fi­nally de­liv­ers. In the mean­time, 2017 will see ever faster vari­ants of what you might call con­ven­tional SSDs, but it will still look pretty ex­otic. Sam­sung’s new 960 Pro is likely a har­bin­ger of things to come. M.2 and PCIe SSDs with GB/s of band­width will prob­a­bly be fairly rou­tine by the end of 2017.

SSDs con­tinue to push for­ward both in terms of ca­pac­ity and through­put.

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