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

    "MLC/TLC NAND treated like SLC"

    That sounds like "a snail treated as a cheetah". I bet feeding antelopes to a snail will make it as fast as a cheetah.

    There is already a huge gap in access performance between MLC and TLC. TLC drives turn pathetic the moment they run out of cache. It is physically impossible to store multiple bits and access as if it is a single bit. Neither in terms of performance, nor in terms of endurance.

    We haven't even seen what SLC is truly capable of, only the very early SSDs had SLC, and back then they were crippled by the primitive and tremendously under-powered controllers. At the medium level, SLC is insanely fast.
  • MFinn3333 - Friday, October 27, 2017 - link

    OK, no that is simply not true.

    Fujtisu made a drive in 2014 entirely of Intel 25nm SLC and a Sandforce 2281 controller. It was called Fujitsu FSX 240GB (And 120GB). It kicked ass for it's class and time but it is nowhere and I mean nowhere near the speeds that are here or what you are claiming.

    I set a couple of them up in RAIeD-0 through both hardware and software RAID and while it did often saturat the bandwidth but only with sequential transfers. The only number that it could ever come close to matching anything here is when you are talking random writes. I could easily hit 220MB/s at 4K Random Write but it's Random Read speed was around 50MB/s at the best of times.

    SLC was and is awesome and I feel comfortable with doing horrible things to those drives (I defragged them for no reason, compiled code, did multiple virtual machines including Windows 3.11, and more benchmarking than any person ever should) but it's time is over.

    Get over it.
  • ddriver - Friday, October 27, 2017 - link

    Oh wow, you are some kind of a tech genius, expecting raid to boost something other than sequential access.

    2014 is ancient history in the world of SSD controllers. SLC on the physical level is capable of 500-600 times better performance than what the "best" SLC controller could squeeze out of it.

    I am not saying this isn't the case for xpoint as well, I am just saying SLC is far more capable than what people can imagine.
  • MFinn3333 - Friday, October 27, 2017 - link

    "We haven't even seen what SLC is truly capable of, only the very early SSDs had SLC, and back then they were crippled by the primitive and tremendously under-powered controllers. "

    That is what you wrote, not about SSD's a few years ago but the very early ones. You moved your own goalposts.

    SLC is about 4x faster than MLC. You are claiming it to be 500x while showing little to no evidence and roasting Intel for their claims. So either put up or shut up with your evidence.
  • Reflex - Friday, October 27, 2017 - link

    SLC does not obey physics. Gotta take that into account. ;)
  • chrnochime - Wednesday, November 1, 2017 - link

    No comment when the other guy mentions 2014 is not "very early SSD"? Come on now. Your prejudice against anything other than SLC is showing. We all know early SSDs go back much earlier than even 2007.
  • edzieba - Saturday, October 28, 2017 - link

    If SLC were truly better and cheaper than PCM, then companies would be using it and undercutting the competition with their cheaper, faster drives with lower production costs.
  • jospoortvliet - Friday, November 3, 2017 - link

    Indeed: https://xkcd.com/808/
  • extide - Friday, October 27, 2017 - link

    Regardless of the tests used here this thing is one of the fastest storage devices available PERIOD, and it's honestly priced pretty well. It's cheaper/GB than the first SSD I bought, in fact. I could see this being used for large swaps on servers that need a huge memory footprint for a lot cheaper than a shitload of RAM, or as a ZFS L2ARC or ZIL, or for hosting a ton of VM's or for running databases off of, etc.

    BUT you are ddriver, the king of cynicism, so I can at least say "I got what I expected."
  • ddriver - Friday, October 27, 2017 - link

    I am also the king of "1000 times better means 1000 times better" ;)

    I too got what I expected, because I expected that "1000 times better" to be a lie.

    If you look at my comments, I am actually 100% objective about acknowledging the benefits of hypetane. Which is where my true biggest fault lies. How dare I be objective rather than expressing nothing short of complete awe and admiration?

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