Who is the Optane SSD 900P for?

With a price per GB a little over twice that of the the fastest flash-based consumer SSDs, the Optane SSD 900P is an exclusive high-end product. For most desktop usage, drives like the 960 PRO are already fast enough to make storage no longer a severe bottleneck. The most noticeable delays due to storage performance on a 960 PRO are when moving around large files, and the Optane SSD doesn't offer any significant improvement to sequential transfer speeds. Random writes can be a challenge for flash-based SSDs, but volatile write caches and SLC caches allow them to handle short bursts with very high performance.

The unprecedented random read performance of the Optane SSD 900P is its biggest strength on paper, but not one that will often lead to a proportional speedup in overall application performance. Too many programs and filesystems are still designed with mechanical hard drive performance in mind as the baseline, and further increases to SSD performance serve mainly to shift the bottlenecks further onto the CPU, RAM, network, and even the user's own reaction time.

The scenarios where a drive like the Optane SSD 900P can offer meaningful and worthwhile performance improvements can be broadly categorized as as situations where the Optane SSD can help with one of two problems:

1. Storage is too slow

About the only time a desktop could challenge the sequential access performance of a high-end PCIe SSD (based on flash or 3D XPoint) is when dealing with high resolution uncompressed video. The Optane SSD doesn't help much here because of its limited capacity, and the PCIe 3 x4 link itself is a bottleneck at the highest refresh rates and bit depths. For video work, flash-based SSDs are definitely a better choice, and RAID arrays of cheaper SATA SSDs may be a better option than PCIe SSDs. Desktop workloads that require extremely high sustained random write performance are very rare, and SLC caching on a flash-based SSD nicely takes care of most realistic quantities of random writes.

That said, there are some situations where higher random read performance can be quite noticeable. Searching through a large volume of data is a common case, such as searching through a video, but it usually presents enough opportunities for parallelization that the drive's queue depth will climb up to the range where flash-based SSDs come close to the Optane SSD. Game level load times can in theory benefit greatly from faster read speeds, but in practice decompressing the assets after loading them into RAM quickly becomes the bottleneck. Most of the other situations where the performance advantage of the Optane SSD will really help are better described as a different kind of problem:

2. RAM is too small

In the workstation market, there are abundant examples of compute tasks with a memory working set that doesn't fit in RAM. Almost any simulation or rendering task will have a parameter for mesh density or particle count that can very quickly scale the memory requirements from a few GB to tens or hundreds of GB. An Optane SSD is far slower than four to eight channels of DDR4, but 16GB DIMMs are least 6-7 times more expensive per GB than the Optane SSD 900P, and putting more than 128GB of DRAM in an ATX motherboard is even more expensive.

Intel PR provided an example of using SideFX Houdini to render a high-resolution animation that included a 1.1 billion particle water simulation. Their test used a machine with a 10-core CPU and 64GB of RAM, and compared the 512GB Samsung 960 PRO against the 480GB Optane SSD 900P. The total memory requirements (DRAM+swap) of the rendering job were not disclosed, but the resulting 2.7x speedup is very plausible for a task that absolutely hammers the swap device. With a sufficiently high thread count to keep the queue depth high, that margin could be narrower (especially with the fastest 2TB 960 PRO), but then context switch overhead would become problematic. With the Optane SSD 900P, the random read latency is low enough that it would be hard to host more than two swap-limited threads per core without context switch overhead wasting more time than waiting on the SSD.

Star Citizen Bundle

Even though gaming isn't the ideal workload for the Optane SSD 900P to show off its performance, Intel is marketing the 900P to gaming enthusiasts. They're bundling a code for the game Star Citizen with the 900P, and including a new in-game spaceship variant as an exclusive item for Optane SSD customers. Intel has partnered with Star Citizen developer Roberts Space Industries (RSI) to hold a launch event for the 900P at CitizenCon 2017 today, which they are streaming live on Twitch and YouTube. Attendees will have the chance to playtest the Intel-exclusive Sabre Raven ship, but it is still undergoing final QA and will not be immediately available to Optane SSD 900P customers. The web page for redeeming the Star Citizen game code had not gone live as of the time of writing, so I was unable to attempt any testing with the game. (ed: I remember when AMD was offering a Star Citizen bundle in 2014 as well. The game still hasn't shipped.)

At the media briefing for the 900P, an RSI representative said they are exploring ways to optimize the Star Citizen experience on Optane SSDs, but not many specifics were provided. One approach under consideration is using less compression for some game assets, freeing up CPU time but relying on high storage performance. It didn't sound like this work was close to release. In the game's current state, RSI claims they've seen load times improve by 20-25%, but they didn't specify what other storage device they were comparing against.

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  • ddriver - Friday, October 27, 2017 - link

    I'd reserve judgement in regard with endurance until I see how many TBs written before it cr@ps out.

    Laptops - that activates my hilarity unit. It can only shine in enterprise workloads, laptops are inherently underpowered and targeted at completely different workloads.

    We need to get it into smart watches, now that will be a game changer. Imagine the possibilities ;)
  • BrokenCrayons - Friday, October 27, 2017 - link

    "Laptops - that activates my hilarity unit. It can only shine in enterprise workloads, laptops are inherently underpowered and targeted at completely different workloads."

    The millions of customers that purchase mobile workstations find your misunderstand laughable.
  • ddriver - Friday, October 27, 2017 - link

    I highly doubt mobile workstations sell in the millions. They are a rather niche market.

    And I know that mobile workstations are used for very different workloads from the enterprise. Clearly, you lack insights into "workstation" and "enterprise" ;)
  • BrokenCrayons - Friday, October 27, 2017 - link

    If, by "enterprise" you're trying to imply server workloads, then sure, I'd agree that mobile workstations fill a different computing role in the workplace. However, there's nothing preventing a storage-intensive workload from ending up on any sort of laptop, even a consumer-oriented system.

    Why intentionally close the door to storage technologies? Is it a brand loyalty hangup? Do you really care that much about what company logo is on a product? Its sort of an inferior and defective mental state you've got there over something as meaningless as what company developed a particular product. Or are you close-minded over the idea that the performance claims weren't met? That's almost as irrational as brand loyalty (or dis-loyalty in your case...which is equally silly, by the way). Decrying a reasonably priced product that performs well because it didn't live up to a marketing claim merely means you haven't the capacity to put aside your emotions and see a product for its usage past the crap you get fed by meaningless product announcements. That's just as dumb as falling prey to marketing to begin with. Either way, someone with the ability to control their own emotions and think rationally wouldn't be in the situation you're in right now.
  • ddriver - Friday, October 27, 2017 - link

    There is no such thing as a "server workstation". There is this thing called "server", and this thing called "workstation". There is some very minimal possible overlap in specs, but the two are used for completely different purposes.

    Hypetane's advantage is mostly due to the controller rather than the storage medium. And that performance obviously comes at a high power cost. Which is why I am not seeing this make its way into laptops, where it will offer next to no real world performance benefits while being a significant power drain.

    You love wasting money to have worse battery life or something?

    Emotions? U crazy? This is electronics, it's just stuff, inanimate matter. Who would see it in an emotional context, aside from braindead fanboys?

    One of the many things I do is also to play the guitar. People are always like "you don't love your guitars enough" - coming from people who collect guitars for decoration and barely even play and naturally suck at it. To which I reply - "to me the guitar is not a fashion accessory, it is an instrument, I cannot love it any more than I can love a hammer or a wrench or an electric drill".

    It is the same for hardware. Some may buy it for bragging rights or self esteem. I buy what I can afford as long as it can serve the purpose I buy it for. Surely I didn't like buying intel CPUs the last 10 years, but when AMD's got garbage, there is nothing I can do about it.

    What drives my criticism of intel is their shitty act. They pretend as if they are the drive of innovation, but they have actually held technology a hostage through their monopoly, and impeded competition and progress tremendously, causing irreparable damage to humanity. You don't have the capacity to understand how much better things could have been had progress not been hostage of the greedy and corrupt but I do. And they keep on doing it even after being caught red-handed. As they say, "a leopard cannot change its spots".

    The real problem however is "people" like you being reduced so low, not only do you NOT have a problem with the degradation and exploitation of your own species, you go forth to applaud it. Honestly, what does intel have to do to get criticism from you? Run over your dog? Burn your house down? Chop your hands off?

    It is your fault that intel's act is so shitty. People like you, who let it slide and even applaud it. It is your fault amd wasn't competitive for a decade. It is your fault that they ask 10000 dollars for a piece of silicone that costs 50 dollars to make. AT servers will run out of storage space before I list all the shit "people" with your mindset and responsible for.
  • BrokenCrayons - Friday, October 27, 2017 - link

    Yup, easily manipulated.
  • lmcd - Friday, October 27, 2017 - link

    Please help me understand how GloFo was ever going to catch up enough for AMD to realistically have competed? They're only finally competing with the slowdown post-Moore's Law. Blame whatever you want but Intel's process advantage brought them massive performance advantages and design advantages. Add in the importance of yields -- as core count increases, yield becomes massively more important. AMD never was going to compete with Intel until the barrier to improvement became physics itself, and not merely our tools of manipulation.
  • utmode - Saturday, October 28, 2017 - link

    How come Moore's Law is law when it is not a law anymore or never been. It
  • AndrewJacksonZA - Friday, October 27, 2017 - link

    "Intel has almost taken all the fun out of testing a SSD."

  • jjj - Friday, October 27, 2017 - link

    The drive has very high power consumption and the power meter fails? That's very very suspicious and you should have delayed the review.
    To make it worse, the results will be published only in bench and the review not updated?
    I can't trust you anymore, ever.

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