Introduction

An ideal main memory device would operate very quickly, be extremely durable, and retain data indefinitely without using power. At the same time, memory needs to be affordable and large enough to sustain standard operating systems and applications.

The ever-increasing amount of data and the need to access more of that data quickly prompted Intel to develop a new type of solid-state drive. Intel Optane Memory is intended to bridge the gap between RAM and flash-based storage.

Let us compare Intel Optane with standard RAM and NAND SSDs to understand the benefits it brings to users and enterprises.

Intel Optane, RAM and SSD comparison.

Differences Between Intel Optane, RAM and SSD

Dynamic Random-Access Memory (DRAM) is very durable and fast but not able to retain data. If DRAM loses its power source, for any reason, the data it was processing is lost and needs to be retrieved from disk storage. This inability to retain data is known as volatility.

On the other hand, solid-state drives retain data even without power. These drives are non-volatile, but lack read/write speeds and have high latency when dealing with heavy workloads.

In mid-2015, Intel unveiled the Optane brand based on 3D XPoint (tree-dee cross point) technology). It has high data density and low latency, much like DRAM, but saves and accesses data like flash storage.

An image showing 3D Xpoint technology in more detail.

Despite initial market skepticism, in subsequent years, Intel’s Optane range became widely implemented on an enterprise level and in data centers.

Intel Optane Vs SSD Vs DRAM: Performance Comparison

As expected, Intel Optane Memory is not faster than DRAM memory. Due to that factor alone, it would not make much sense to use it as a primary memory device. However, let us outline the fundamental differences between Intel Optane Memory, SSDs, and DRAM to pinpoint its strong points.

DRAM

Intel Optane

Flash Memory (SSD)

Speed

Very Fast

Slower than DRAM, but much faster than flash memory

Slower than both DRAM and Intel Optane

Cost

Expensive

Costs less than DRAM but more than flash memory

Affordable

Volatile / Non-Volatile

Volatile

Non-Volatile

Non-Volatile

Latency

Low 

Low 

High 

Reliability

High 

Excellent read response times compared to flash-based drives

Low

Endurance

High 

High

Low 

Low Latency

Low latency is one of Intel Optane’s best features. Read speeds are consistently high, even with multiple write operations running in parallel. Even with extremely heavy loading scenarios, Optane can still ensure latency meets the requirements for latency-critical applications. Intel claims that the read response times are continuously below 30 microseconds while maintaining a 70% read and 30% write workload.

Endurance

Due to the unique technology used, Intel Optane has a very high endurance of up to 60 Drive Writes per Day (DWPD). This number represents how many times the drive’s entire storage can be overwritten each day of its life. An immensely important feature for enterprise write workloads. Excellent storage endurance is one of the reasons why Intel Optane excels in in-memory database deployment.

Tests have shown that Intel Optane can endure up to six times more DWPD than traditional NAND SSDs when write-intensive workloads are applied.

Does Optane Memory Replace SSDs?

Optane technology is an excellent candidate to replace NAND SSDs. Its speed is comparable to RAM and yet it is non-volatile, thus it can retain data for a long time.

Optane performs excellent, with up to 550,000 IOPS and 500,000 IOPS in 4K random reads and writes. Tests have shown that Intel Optane is better for applications with read-intensive access patterns. Its advantage over other high-performance SSDs is less pronounced when it comes to write-intensive workloads.


Note: IOPS is a measurement for drive performance. It stands for "inputs/outputs per second" and is calculated in integers. IOPS may differ from one workload to another. Hence, vendors usually speak of maximum theoretical IOPS scores.


Furthermore, Optane is considered highly reliable, with fewer dips in performance and lower latency.

Such performance is highly coveted in enterprise use cases. More and more organizations are using Optane SSDs for sensitive data center workloads. To make use of Optane’s speed and performance, Optane SSDs use the NVMe interface which is superior to SATA.

As prices drop, Optane SSDs will become an integral part of every modern consumer PC.

Does Intel Optane Memory Replace RAM?

It is important not to think of Intel Optane as a replacement for standard DRAM. Instead, its purpose is to complement and improve existing memory configurations.

By combining the speed of short-term working memory (DRAM), with the persistent quality of Intel Optane, you get a responsive system that can access data faster with a higher level of reliability.

For example, a 32 GB stick of M.2 Optane memory can accelerate any SATA-based storage drive. It caches frequently accessed files in a non-volatile manner, thus speeding up system responsiveness.

Businesses often delay upgrading their server equipment due to prohibitive costs. More data is available than ever before in both volume and value. Inadequate hardware makes it difficult to maintain consistent quality-of-service.

Optane Persistent Memory for Data Centers

Intel Optane DC (Data Center) Persistent Memory (DCPMM) is a memory module that gets slotted into the server’s DIMM slots. Its role is to bridge the gap between storage and traditional memory and to enable affordable, large-scale memory deployments.

Image of Intel Optane DC Persistent Memory Module.

Optane DC Persistent Memory Module (DCPMM)

Intel Optane memory acts as a fast means for data to be transferred between memory storage and RAM. Intel Optane Memory mitigates the effects of the data transfer process and improves it by caching frequently used files.

Image showing 2 CPUs with 6 DRAM moduls and 6 DCPMMs.

2CPUs+6 DRAM modules+6 DCPMMs

Why Use Intel Optane DC Memory?

Software tools are becoming more sophisticated, open-source, and require large amounts of computing power. DCPMM offers the latency of memory with the persistence of storage. It is well suited for data replication tasks, in-memory databases, machine learning workloads, and sustaining private and hybrid cloud solutions.

In-Memory Databases and Data Replication

Companies are adopting in-memory analytics to be able to use their data more efficiently. These analytics drives near real-time insights and new competitive advantages. Due to its non-volatility, Intel Optane DC memory can maintain large amounts of data closer to the CPU, allowing in-memory databases to work faster and with fewer delays.

Since DCPMM is non-volatile, you can safely store your database applications directly on the Optane module. DRAM can now access data quickly without the need to copy information from your disk storage into memory every time.

Virtualization: VMs and Containers

VMs and containers have started to dominate application deployment. Once the capabilities of their systems reach their limits, enterprises usually expand hardware performance by scaling out. In this process, companies employ more memory by driving up costs significantly.

These features increase the size and density of workloads on a single server without changing the workloads themselves. In short, DCPMM allows you to deploy more containers or VMs on the same server hardware.

The non-volatile nature of Intel Optane memory means that any system restart starts VMs and containers immensely faster.

Efficient Data Replication

Businesses are under pressure to keep their systems operational at all times. The replication of data in multiple locations helps mitigate the effects of system failure. It also ensures that there is no loss of data and no significant drop in availability. Replicating  large amounts of information in a different location, or locations is one of the most work-intensive tasks servers perform.

DCPMM is ideal for data replication tasks due to high IOPS (input/output operations per second) combined with its low latency capabilities.

Conclusion

Intel Optane memory is an innovative memory technology that delivers affordable large capacity and support for data persistence. The significant reduction of cost and the unique memory caching features make this module a desirable prospect for enterprises and data centers.


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