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Intel Optane Memory: Everything You Need to Know

Intel Optane Memory: Everything You Need to Know

Intel Optane Memory: Everything You Need to Know

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SSDs are getting more affordable all the time, but it’s still difficult to fit everything you want to access faster onto a single drive. We’ve discussed the choice between HDDs and SSDs in more detail elsewhere, but Intel Optane memory hopes to bridge the gap between the faster speeds of solid-state drives and the space available on mechanical hard drives. If you need other new parts to go with your Optane, check out our lists of the best CPUs, best graphics cards, and best gaming SSDs. Here’s everything you need to know about how Intel Optane memory works, its advantages, and possible disadvantages.

What is Intel Optane Memory?

Fundamentally, Optane Memory is a form of disk caching. The idea is to provide users with the fast data access of SSDs combined with the large capacity of HDDs. (Technically, Optane Memory can also be used with SSDs, but for the purposes of this article, I’ll only say HDDs are used for slower mass storage.) Frequently used data is copied onto fast M.2 Optane Memory storage, And less important data is pulled from the hard drive. This is great in theory, but Optane Memory is not always the perfect solution.

How Intel Optane Memory Works

Optane Memory uses the Least Recently Used (LRU) method to determine what to store in the fast cache. All initial data reads are from slower HDD storage and the data is copied to the cache. Data is written to the cache first and then copied to the HDD. Every time a block of data in the cache is read or written, its last access time is updated. Eventually, the cache fills up and old data is evicted – this will be the data that hasn’t been used for the longest time. The larger the cache, the more data it can hold, and the more likely it is that reads and writes will use fast cache storage rather than slow HDDs.

This raises the tricky question of how big the cache needs to be to hold all the “important” data. Originally released in 16GB and 32GB capacities, Intel has since added a 64GB Optane memory option, and you can also use an Intel Optane 800p drive as a larger 118GB Optane memory cache if you prefer. The reason for the larger capacity is simple: for some users, the 16GB and 32GB caches simply aren’t big enough. Windows 10 alone can use most of the 16GB model for frequently accessed data. Running some apps or games, “old” data is kicked out of the cache.

In the worst case, sequential access of slightly more than 16GB of data (eg 17GB) will first fill up the Optane memory cache, then evict the oldest 1GB of data to make room for the last 1GB of data, then flush the entire cache again to access the “new” “Data not cached. Any data not already in the Optane memory cache will end up with HDD performance, which largely negates these benefits. This particular situation is unlikely to happen in the real world – a lot of data is often used multiple times and would benefit from caching – but having a cache large enough to hold a working dataset is ideal.

The difficulty is determining what to cache in the first place. Optane Memory relies on Intel’s Rapid Storage Technology (RST) applications and drivers, and RST has some intelligence about which types of data are stored in the cache. For example, if you’re watching a large HD movie stored on your PC, there’s no real benefit to putting all 8GB of movie data in cache. Movies are read sequentially at a relatively low rate (maybe 5-15MB/s) and just waste cache space.

Intel hasn’t provided exact details on its caching algorithm, but even a small 16GB Optane memory module can significantly improve Windows boot times and game load times — although many games are now in the 50-100GB range. At the same time, it’s easy to get into where the 16GB Optane memory size is limited. Taking AnandTech as an example, some benchmarks were run with and without Optane Memory at various capacities, and in some tests larger datasets caused even 64GB modules to fall back to HDD performance levels.

Intel Optane Memory Specifications

Optane Memory either works well (all important data is in cache) or works well (some data is stored in slower storage). Technically, the performance of an Optane Memory drive depends on whether you have a 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB model, but I generally don’t recommend the 16GB option. Here’s how the three models compare, and again it’s worth pointing out that the Intel Optane 800p SSDs (58GB and 118GB) can also be used as Optane memory drives.

Maximum sequential throughput is limited by the PCIe x2 interface on higher capacity models, but in practice it doesn’t matter. There’s very little practice that saturates an x2 link – copying files and some synthetic benchmarks can get there, but if you’re loading apps and games, Optane Memory is pretty fast.

Optane Memory is built using Intel’s 3D XPoint technology, a type of non-volatile memory a bit like the NAND used in most other SSDs, except that it relies on changing material properties rather than storing electrical charge. First discussed in 2015, 3D XPoint made a lot of promises: faster reads and writes, higher capacity, and higher endurance than NAND. Those specs are definitely better than NAND in most respects, though not as good as originally claimed — at least not yet.

Right now, Optane Memory’s raw throughput isn’t actually faster than NAND, but one of Optane Memory’s big advantages is low latency access times. Most NAND-based SSDs have read/write latencies around 100/50µs, while Optane Memory 32/64GB drives have 18/7µs latencies. This is more theoretical, especially since some data accesses may not be cached, so HDD latency comes into play, but when testing similar Intel Optane 800p SSDs, overall performance was generally better than significantly larger SSDs.

Intel Optane memory performance

While Intel touts Optane Memory’s ability to accelerate slower SSDs and HDDs, the latter is the most common use case. For most real-world use cases, Optane Memory performs as advertised. Pairing a 32GB or 64GB module with a larger HDD yields performance results — Windows boot times, app and game load times, level load times, and more — that are similar to decent SSDs.

To give some concrete examples, I loaded several games (multiple times), including Anthem, The Division 2, and Metro Exodus. HDD load times were about 30% slower (using one of the fastest HDDs available, the WD Black 4TB). With Optane memory, load times are almost the same as most SATA SSDs, including the Crucial MX500 and Samsung 860 Evo. Windows boot times with Optane Memory were also nearly identical to those with a premium SSD—about 12 seconds, compared to 30 seconds for the HDD. But there is a caveat.

The biggest concern is that any first access to uncached data will end up at HDD speeds. This becomes less important in the long run, but when tested immediately after enabling Optane, the first boot of Windows was only marginally faster – the improvement was in subsequent boot times. Loading a game or app for the first time will also be slow – if you fill up your cache (which is indeed possible with the 16GB model), you’ll get “first run” performance on your app more often. If your cache is large enough to handle everyday workloads, Optane Memory can be significantly faster than a hard drive, but requires some warm-up before it’s fully ready.

How this will work depends on what you are doing. For lighter use cases, a 32GB Optane Memory drive is usually sufficient, but for heavy workloads it can certainly reach the point where not even 64GB is enough. Note that AnandTech’s heavy testing scenarios are certainly not representative of the day-to-day work of most end users.

How much does Intel Optane memory cost?

Given the overall good performance, price is obviously a major consideration. A 2TB hard drive paired with a fast Optane memory cache sounds like a reasonable solution. Currently, Optane Memory is priced at $28 for 16GB, $88 for 32GB, $111 for 64GB, and $199 for 128GB. Intel’s original pricing is more reasonable ($39, $69, $129, and $199), but retail prices are everywhere.

I still strongly recommend against the 16GB model, just because it easily exceeds its cache capacity (and is generally slower), and considering the relatively similar prices of the 32GB and 64GB options (yes, 800p 58GB is functionally equivalent to 64GB) Optane memory drive), grabbing 800p 58GB makes the most sense. Of course, you have to factor in the overall pricing of the hard drive, so another $60 for 2TB of storage.

Currently, SSD prices have dropped to the point where a 32GB Optane Memory drive costs not too far from a 1TB SATA SSD, and you can get a good 1TB SATA SSD for less than a 64GB model. At the same time, 118GB is hardly a consideration, Because it costs as much as a 2TB NVMe SSD. SSDs will provide “fast” performance for all data, while Optane memory may be slightly faster for cached data and slower for any data not in cache.

If you want a single drive with good performance and a capacity of 2TB, a 64GB Optane memory stick and a hard drive cost about $160 right now – more than a decent 1TB SATA SSD and more than a fast 2TB NVMe SSD $80 off.

System Requirements for Intel Optane Memory

As the name suggests, Intel Optane memory is only available on Intel platforms. Specifically, Optane Memory requires a motherboard with a 200-series or 300-series chipset – the H310 is an exception, which does not support Optane Memory. It also works with X299 chipset motherboards. There are also CPU requirements, you need a 7th generation or later Intel CPU. However, there are exceptions on the CPU side: Optane Memory is supported on all Core i3/i5/i7/i9 CPUs, but not on Pentium and Celeron models.

Optane memory modules come in the M.2 2280 form factor and require the use of one of your M.2 slots. Some motherboards contain only one M.2 slot, so it is not possible to use Optane Memory with M.2 NVMe SSDs. Intel does offer combo drives that include both Optane memory and 660p SSD storage on a single M.2 stick, but these drives are for OEMs and system builders. If demand is high enough, they could start showing up in retail stores, but so far that hasn’t been the case.

In addition to hardware requirements, Optane memory has some software and operating system requirements. You will need Windows 10 version 1803 or later (ie the April 2018 Update, so any Windows 10 installation should work now). You also need Intel’s RST 15.5 or later software. Again, considering the latest version is 17.7, this shouldn’t cause a problem – and you’ll want to use the latest RST, as Optane memory support has improved a lot over the past year.

Alternatives to Intel Optane Memory

There are other SSD caching solutions available, including PrimoCache and AMD’s StoreMI, which is based on Enmotus FuzeDrive. These solutions can use Intel Optane memory modules as a cache/fast layer, but the actual implementation behaves differently. For example, StoreMI/FuzeDrive uses tiered storage instead of SSD cache. I won’t go into all the details, but tiered storage is generally considered an approach over pure caching. For example, instead of duplicating data on the fast and slow tiers, you can get the combined storage capacity of all tiers.

StoreMI is free for any AMD Ryzen 400 series or higher chipset motherboard or Threadripper X399 and TRX40 motherboards. You can also buy FuzeDrive and use it with any other motherboard (AMD or Intel).

One thing to note is that cache drives (i.e. using Optane Memory or PrimoCache) usually end up doing more writes than regular SSDs, and smaller NAND SSDs are usually relatively underperforming. This is where the advantages of 3D XPoint become more apparent. Where modern NAND cells can be erased…

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Wilbert Wood
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