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

    Yeah, and now you will either get crucified for straying from the herd, or you will be labeled a fake account I made to compliment myself :)

    It is not really worth the trouble you know, I don't care about approval.
  • lmcd - Friday, October 27, 2017 - link

    I bet you also are advocating against future upgrades to Anandtech's comment system, with which even a crowd as small as Anandtech's would use to bury your unwanted, pointless, and untruthful comments.
  • Reflex - Friday, October 27, 2017 - link

    Optane is a technology.
    Today's article is about a product, which happens to use Optane in combination with other technologies.

    Intel's statements about Optane were about the capabilities of the technology. And indeed, for those who know much about PCM they were reasonable statements.

    Actual products are not guaranteed to maximize the ultimate potential of a given technology, especially in their first revisions. In 1995 when most motherboards were transitioning from a BIOS ROM to a Flash BIOS, a company could have stated that the potential for Flash was 1000x the performance of the older ROM based technologies. And they would have been correct. Even though the earlier Flash devices achieved speeds only of a couple MB/sec.

    Flash BIOS chips were a product. Flash, NAND or NOR, are technologies. Those technologies had major potential which has been largely realized over the two decades since that time. Products have gotten better as supporting technologies have improved (such as controllers and bus interfaces) and predicted improvements in Flash were made (die shrinks, power optimization, parallelization, die stacking, etc). That does not make any of the early PR about the technology inaccurate, or even misleading. It was all true and over time it was demonstrated.

    Intel stated the potential of Optane. Two years later they have started releasing products based on it. None are yet capable of reaching its stated potential, after all a 1000x performance improvement would exceed the bandwidth of any connected bus, much less the controllers in their current state and likely the current manufacturing technologies. But they launched with what is undoubtedly the fastest storage device on the market by a significant margin, with reliability that is multiples of any competing technology, and a cost that is significantly lower than expected for such a halo product.

    That is a very successful launch. And given what they have stated Optane is capable of (all reasonable targets for PCM), I am optimistic about the future.

    And I am glad Samsung will have competition again. The market has stagnated both in price and capacity.
  • looncraz - Friday, October 27, 2017 - link

    I have a specific workload that can (at peak sustained) can read 3~4GB/s and write out about 1.5~2.0GB/s from storage (at the same time to different drives - some data to/from GPU, some to/from CPU). Optane would actually slow me down quite a bit.

    The 4KiB block size is simply not an issue that requires solving any more. Software adapted already.
  • Manch - Friday, October 27, 2017 - link

    Out of 6 pages of comments that idiot rambles on and on for 5 of them. I'm pleading with the UK government to reevaluate and censure the internet usage of their crazies......JTMC.....just shut up.
  • Reflex - Friday, October 27, 2017 - link

    I miss the days when we had intelligent commentators on articles here.
  • ddriver - Friday, October 27, 2017 - link

    You mean the days you didn't have them and still had the idyllic, innocent, ignorant garden of tech Eden, where feeling intelligent was as easy as posting a "great review, great product, me want" comment.

    Funny story, I evidently didn't have a point of reference until recently, when I visited the comment section at wccftech. Now, after having see that, I do also see how you could cultivate the illusion that the AT comment section may appear to be intelligent, if only relative to that random offtopic pic trolling, but I can assure you, there is no intellect in "on-topic sucking up".

    You definitely have a problem with factual intelligence, and that problem has to do with realizing it is something that you do not posses. Which makes you cranky. You do have a choice thou, you can remain antagonistic to actual intelligence in order to protect your lack thereof and hold on to the much more easily attainable illusion of it, or you can take steps to acquire intelligence for real, but I warn you, it will change your world forever.

    And just to let you know, you can become intelligent without becoming an ass like me. Those are two different traits, not related to each other.
  • lmcd - Friday, October 27, 2017 - link

    Honestly, if you've got so much experience in the field, you should spend more time in it. You're clearly excessively valuable and should not waste your talents talking to such unintelligent plebian commenters.
  • Reflex - Friday, October 27, 2017 - link

    Yes, obviously prior to your arrival no one writing for or commenting on this site or its articles had any in depth knowledge of technology. Thank goodness you finally arrived to enlighten us all. I have no idea how the technology industry, writers and community even managed to invent the pocket calculator before you arrived.
  • mkozakewich - Monday, October 30, 2017 - link

    When you see their names, just scroll past the entire message thread. It'll save you a lot of time and sanity.
    (I agree, though; it was annoying scrolling through four or five pages!)

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