Next-Gen Intel Optane Expanding Capacity with QLC NAND

Article By : Gary Hilson

The latest Optane drives are aimed at both data center and the client, with the latter also leveraging the company’s NAND flash...

Intel frontloaded its latest Optane product announcements with a few new flash-based offerings, even as the sale of its NAND business to SK Hynix is pending. The latest Optane drives are aimed at both data center and the client, with the latter also leveraging the company’s NAND flash.

The Intel Optane Memory H20 for clients combines 3D Xpoint technology with the company’s 144-layer QLC 3D NAND; it is part of the company’s strategy to “exceed” user expectations, said David Lundell, general manager of the Intel Optane group’s client division. Those needs include instant on, responsiveness, worry-free battery life, seamless multitasking, and ample data storage. Optane addresses the instant on and responsiveness demands so that users can search and find files faster and start applications quicker, while frequent tasks are sped up through software that learns a user’s computing behaviors.

The QLC 3D NAND delivers as much as 1TB of storage capacity, which is becoming the norm in PCs, he said. “This part of the drive is really about the storage getting up to a size that consumers have learned to expect.” Meanwhile, the M.2 form factor reduces the footprint for use mobile devices and desktops. Fast speeds are enabled by PCIe 3 with NVMe. Intel sees the H20 as well suited for office productivity, gaming, and content creation. Lundell said the company would provide more details on speeds-and-feeds closer to the H20’s launch date, slated for some time in Q2 next year.

For the data center, Intel announced the Optane SSD P5800X, and it reflects the need for storage acceleration as NAND densities continue to increase, said David Tuhy, vice president and general managed of the Intel data center Optane storage division. More and more workloads such as AI, business intelligence, and databases are going on a single CPU because there’s more cores. “Each of those workloads tends to be read and write intensive.” As more CPU cores are added, legacy memory and storage are becoming bottlenecks.

intel optane
The Intel Optane Memory H20 for clients combines 3D Xpoint technology with the company’s 144 Layer QLC 3D NAND in the M.2 form factor (Source: Intel)

Intel has learned a lot from its first generation Optane SSD, Tuhy said, and it’s reflected in the P5800X, which comes in the U.2 form factor and is both PCIe 3.0 and 4.0 capable to attain sequential reads up to 7.2 Gbps and sequential writes up to 6.2 Gbps. Latency and quality of service (QoS) were key areas of focus for the new SSD, said Tuhy, because a lot of Intel storage customers are serving segments such as financial industry that pay based on latency and QoS requirements. “A lot of our customers care about this quality,” he said. “Each of them has a segmentation model where you pay based on latency.”

But even in a data center environment, Optane isn’t meant to replace all the flash SSDs. Rather, said Tuhy, Optane can be put in front of QLC NAND SSDs to collect data in bigger chunks so it’s optimized before landing on the QLC, which helps to solve the bottlenecking. Data gets laid out more efficiently, he said, while the life of the QLC drive gets extended.

Overall, the new Optane offerings suggest that Intel has got a handle on where the 3D Xpoint technology delivers the most value with tangible use cases that suggest the persistent memory technology isn’t destined to fully replace 3D NAND or DRAM, even if it has taken a few years to mature after 2015 launch with its partner at the time, Micron Technology.

“Intel probably would rather not have rolled Optane out until 2017, two years after they made the big splash of Micron,” said Jim Handy, principal analyst with Objective Analysis. Much of what was just announced has already been discussed within storage communities such as Storage Networking Industry Associate (SNIA) for a while now, so the speed and feeds of the latest Optane aren’t entirely unexpected, he said.


The H20 of course, is a sequel as a client M.2 form factor drive for clients has been available for a year now, said Handy, which has found some traction with the gaming community. “Outside of that, I’m not so sure that it’s all that highly requested.” The long-term future of this product line is in question, too, given that it was conceived before Intel decided to divest itself of its flash business, he said. “You have to wonder where that’s going to go in the future, whether they’re going to start buying flash on the open market for it, or if that program is going to go by the wayside.”

Evaluating the new Optane

A selling point of H20 flash / Optane combination is the tight coupling of the two technologies thanks to Intel’s firmware, which not be possible if the company if they’re sourcing flash on the open market, said Handy, and its ability to tune an overall system is playing a big role in the performance improvements it’s getting out of the 3D Xpoint memory technology itself, he said. “That actually says an awful lot about how they’ve been able to optimize firmware in the SSD to better fit the workload. I don’t think it’s that the Optane media has changed all that much.”

Handy said Intel SDDs have always been “a cut above” because the company devotes significant research and development toward firmware, so it’s quite characteristic of Intel to have an Optane SSD that has extraordinarily, highly tuned firmware. “Something that you have to consider too, is that within the greater Intel, there’s a huge understanding of what’s going on inside the system—how the data is moving around, and the things need to be done to optimize it,” he said. “That’s something they can harness to make their SSDs perform better, whether they’re Optane or not.”

Handy is surprised that SSDs are getting as much traction as they are as he sees the Optane DIMM as delivering more compute advantages. There’s been some optimization with the second generation as well as significant reduced power consumption, as Intel has learned some lessons from the first DIMM product.

Intel’s the P5800X, which comes in the U.2 form factor and is both PCIe 3.0 and 4.0 capable to attain sequential reads up to 7.2 GB/s and sequential writes up to 6.2 GB/s. (Source: Intel)

Longer term, Intel expects the incredible growth of data to continue to drive the evolution of Intel’s persistent memory, said Alper Ilkbahar, the new general manager of the Intel Optane group. Combined with the new analytics capabilities that businesses are using to gain insights out of increasingly larger data sets, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data analytics, there’s an “insatiable demand” for compute. “Those same forces also drive the need to bring more and more data close to the CPU, and this is driving the demand for memory.”

Aside from the announced SSDs, Ilkbahar said Intel will further extend its memory and storage portfolio with its third generation of Intel Optane persistent memory, code-named “Crow Pass,” and in future Intel Xeon Scalable processors code-named “Sapphire Rapids.”

Intel has positioned Optane as an additional layer in the memory / storage hierarchy, and Ilkbahar said there’s an opportunity to rearchitect both of the memory and storage architectures and use the capability of persistent memory to act both as a low-cost memory, as well as a super fast storage device simultaneously.

In addition to the new Optane products, the company also announced three new NAND SSDs featuring 144-layer cell 3D NAND.

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