Intel's Optane SSDs are coming to consumer systems for the first time today. The Optane SSD 900P Series will encompass 280GB and 480GB NVMe drives with PCIe 3.0 x4 interfaces. Intel will initially offer the SSD 900P as an add-in card in 280GB and 480GB capacities, and as a U.2 2.5" SSD in a 280GB form factor. Other capacities are in the pipe for future releases.
Like Intel's 750 Series SSDs of years past, the Optane SSD 900P drives enjoy a data-center pedigree. They're built with the same controller as the DC P4800X, albeit with different firmware that omits some data-center-specific features.
Although the sequential read and write numbers Intel provides may be the first figures that many may look to for an idea of the performance of these SSDs, sequential performance has never been the highlight of Optane products. Intel reminds us that the benefits of Optane lie elsewhere. The major selling point for Optane media is its exceptionally low latency (a claimed 10 microseconds or better) for a non-volatile device and its high random I/O performance at the low queue depths typical of desktop workloads.
Just as with its Optane Memory caching device, Optane SSDs could offer a major responsiveness boost under random workloads. Back when it first announced Optane Memory, Intel released a range of performance data from its internal testing that showed most applications top out with a queue depth of four, and the vast majority of workloads it tested didn't exceed QD2. Thanks to its low latency, Optane can provide higher performance than NAND devices at those low queue depths.
On top of those impressive characteristics, Optane's claimed latency remains similar even as I/O requests scale to astounding rates. Intel's own testing showed that the Optane SSD DC P4800X can service workloads in under 30 microseconds even under 2 GB/s of random write pressure. Intel is also highlighting Optane's endurance: an astounding 8.76 petabytes written for the 480GB drives. For reference, that's about seven times the endurance of Samsung's 960 Pro 2TB NAND SSD.
To the stars
It's fair to say that a non-volatile storage device like this has never existed for desktop PCs before, and cultivating ways to take advantage of it is clearly on Intel's mind. The company says it's been working with Roberts Space Industries, developer of the Star Citizen massively multiplayer space sim, to find ways to showcase Optane's potential benefits for future applications. RSI chief operating officer Carl Jones joined Intel during the Optane briefing to talk up the ways that Star Citizen is being built to take advantage of an Optane SSD.
Jones says that with the ambitious scale of Star Citizen, the game's development team understood that the game would need to stream in large numbers of assets in order to provide the kind of experience it envisioned for players, but the team expects to be moving so much data around that it'll simply exceed the capacity of RAM in the average system. As a result, Star Citizen will apparently need to rely on streaming in assets from disk, and that's where Optane SSDs come in. Intel and RSI believe that Optane will provide an ideal platform for this streaming-heavy environment thanks to its ability to juggle large numbers of concurrent I/O requests with consistent quality of service.
Although my memory is a little hazy, I believe that Intel itself noted that Optane SSDs will require time to become useful to the average enthusiast, simply because developers haven't had to (or haven't even been able to) consider a storage device with these kinds of characteristics before now. Any new technology is going to require outreach and evangelism to be adopted, so the fact that Intel is working with a prominent game developer like Roberts Space Industries to find ways that gaming experiences might benefit from Optane is a good start.
Even if it can benefit from Optane SSDs, however, Star Citizen's developers will undoubtedly have to find ways to maintain good performance on systems that don't have one of these drives inside, so I have to wonder just how much of an upgrade to the experience Optane SSDs will provide.
Gamers will get a copy of Star Citizen and an exclusive in-game ship with the purchase of any Optane SSD for now, though, so there will be some incentive to pick one of these drives up ahead of the game's eventual launch.
Future games may benefit from Optane SSDs, but today's workstation users might see immediate performance boosts with an Optane SSD in their systems. Intel touted a couple promising performance boosts from the SPECwpc workstation benchmark that show substantial boosts in some workloads.
Intel also showed that in the Houdini procedural animation application, rendering a complex seven-second scene on an Optane SSD-equipped system required about 6.3 hours in its testing, compared to 17.3 hours . That speedup apparently comes from the fact that the Optane SSD is able to get data to the CPU faster and thus increase occupancy compared to a traditional NAND SSD.
At $599 for the 480GB add-in card and $389 for the 280GB drive in U.2 or add-in card flavors, the Optane SSD 900P is clearly a product for the crazy ones, the misfits, the folks who need the unique characteristics of the Optane medium to get the best performance out of their workloads. Optane drives should have stellar performance and responsiveness, though, so if you want to be an early adopter, I'm betting the payoff will be handsome.