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Intel Optane Memory: Doing the math and some initial thoughts

By Kenny Yeo - on 31 Mar 2017, 9:51am

Intel Optane Memory only comes in an M.2 form factor for now.

Earlier this week, Intel announced its new Optane Memory, which is a caching SSD.

If the term “caching SSD” is alien to you, it is essentially an SSD with a small capacity that is used solely for the purpose of storing your most frequently accessed data. They are designed to work alongside traditional HDDs and are much more affordable compared to SSDs. As a result, they typically only come in 32GB or less capacities. The goal is to provide close to SSD-levels of performance but without the associated costs and lower capacities that SSDs have.

This technology has been around for some time. Remember Intel Smart Response and Larson Creek from 2011? Not to forget SanDisk had its affordable ReadyCache SSD option too a year later. However, Intel is adamant that Optane Memory will perform better than all caching SSDs before thanks to smart caching algorithms and because Optane Memory uses its new 3D XPoint memory, which Intel says has very low latency.

Larson Creek came with just 20GB of storage.

This all sounds promising, especially when you consider the price. Optane Memory will come in 16GB and 32GB capacities and will be priced at US$44 and US$77 respectively. Assuming a rather generous markup of about 25%, we could be looking at around S$77 and S$135 for the Optane Memory drives when it reaches Singapore.

Here are some comparisons between Optane Memory and full SSD configurations for a given system storage capacity; besides the assumed price of the Optane Memory, we've referenced our local store retailer prices for the HDD and SSD representatives for the respective capacity points:-

1TB

  • 32GB Optane Memory + 1TB HDD = S$135 + S$80 = S$215
  • 1 x 1TB SSD = S$520
     

2TB

  • 32GB Optane Memory + 2TB HDD = S$135 + S$120 = S$255
  • 2 x 1TB SSD = 2 x S$520 = S$1,040
     

4TB

  • 32GB Optane Memory + 4TB HDD = S$135 + S$230 = S$365
  • 4 x 1TB SSD = 4 x S$520 = S$2,080
     

8TB

  • 32GB Optane Memory + 8TB HDD = S$135 + S$500 = S$635
  • 8 x 1TB SSD = 8 x S$520 = S$4,160


Clearly, users who are gunning for high capacity systems will find the Optane Memory configuration a lot more affordable. At 8TB, we are looking at a difference of over S$3,500! Bear in mind we are only using a mainstream SATA-based SSD for comparison, not even a high-end PCIe-based NVMe-compliant one.

Of course, we could argue that for the S$135 that the 32GB Optane Memory cost, one could easily run out and get a basic 256GB SSD. After all, SSD prices have fallen so dramatically in the past year or two.

You can do that, but 256GB is hardly a lot these days. And if you are a gamer or power user, you will chew through that easily. Furthermore, if you get your own SSD, you will have to decide which files and applications to put on your faster SSD and which to leave on your HDD. With Optane Memory, the drive automatically copies your most frequently accessed files onto itself. 

Prices of SSDs have fallen so much recently, making them more attainable.

So far so good, but there is a catch. Optane Memory requires a Kaby Lake processor and Intel’s newest 200-series motherboard to work. 

I think that this could be its biggest obstacle because I don’t foresee many users scrimping and saving especially when they are already spending a substantial amount of money to upgrade to Intel’s latest and greatest CPU and chipset.

The more likely scenario is that they will get a decent-sized 512GB mainstream SSD and pair it with an HDD if they need additional space for nonperformance-critical data.

But having said all this, it ultimately boils down to two things. The first being the actual performance of Intel’s new Optane Memory. Will it be significantly better than previous caching SSDs and technologies that we have seen? Only time will tell. 

The second is how much of your stored applications and data are performance critical, if it is a lot, then I'm afraid the 32GB of Optane Memory is not going to be enough.

For now, Optane Memory is an enticing premise and if it does succeed, it could put SSDs in a pickle.

Kenny Yeo

Kenny Yeo / Associate Editor

Specifications are not everything. It's what you do with what you have that matters.

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