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Intel Optane Drives Bring 3D XPoint Memory Tech To PC And Laptops

As News Editor of Silicon UK, Roland keeps a keen eye on the daily tech news coverage for the site, while also focusing on stories around cyber security, public sector IT, innovation, AI, and gadgets.

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The chip maker aims to shake up storage in consumer and business PCs

Intel is making its Optane technology available for use in consumer PCs in an attempt to advance computer storage beyond solid state drives (SSDs).

The next step in Optane drives follows on from the launch of the first SSD, the snappily named Optane SSD DC P4800X, to feature Intel’s 3D XPoint.

This is a persistent solid state memory technology designed to sit between DRAM and NAND memory (found in modern SSDs) to deliver RAM-like performance for storage arrays.

Intel boasts 3D XPoint delivers 10 times the density of DRAM and 1,000 times the speed of NAND. 

It attributes this to a transistor-less design that creates a form of 3D chequer board of layers memory cells connected by perpendicular wires that allow for the cells to be addressed individually when varied voltage is applied, all enabling for faster and more efficient memory reading and writing.

This avoids the large costs associated with using systems with large amounts of transistor heavy DRAM.

Optane drives

Intel OptaneIntel is offering people and businesses running PCs with its latest Kaby Lake processors the ability to tap into this memory technology through the use of 16GB and 32GB Optane memory drives sporting the M.2 interface to enable the drives to be plugged into PCI-Express slots.

The Optane drives effectively provide a cache of fast solid state memory to boost the responsiveness and load times of applications, somewhat similar to the combination of traditional disk drives with smaller SSDs to provide caching. However, the Optane drives use the supposedly faster 3D XPoint technology, which has yet to be independently tested.

“With the increased speed and responsiveness of Intel Optane memory in a 7th Gen Intel Core processor-based system, you can power on your computer up to twice as fast and improve overall system performance up to 28 percent faster with storage performance up to 14 times faster,” claimed Intel’s general manager for the Client Computing Group Navin Shenoy.

“Applications like Microsoft Outlook will launch up to nearly 6x faster, the Chrome* browser launches up to 5x faster, games launch up to 67 percent faster, and levels load up to 65 percent faster.” 

In short, the goal of the Optane drives is to cut-down on the time it takes to get data out of memory and into a processor.

While SSDs using a PCIe connection can do this, Shenoy noted that many PCs still use traditional hard disk drives as their main source of storage, so in effect the Optane drives filling the gap between a system reliant on older hard disk drives or hybrid configurations with SSDs and those that make use of just SSDs.

But from what we can tell there is a bit of a problem with this approach.

While the Optane SSD DC P4800X offers 375GB of storage it weighs in well North of £1,000 making it only suable for enterprise servers and data centres.

Until Intel increases the capacity of its consumer-grade Optane drives and ensures the price does not skyrocket, the appeal of the Optane drives over larger capacity SSDs is difficult to see.

Furthermore, Optane drives only work with top-of-the-line Kaby Lake processors and the latest motherboards, meaning people with the funds to specify PCs with the latest Intel processors are not likely to opt for a storage array that just consists of a traditional hard disk drive.

if anything they would likely pair a high capacity hard disk drive with an SDD with at least 128GB of capacity, potentially rendering the speed benefits of a low-capacity Optane drive moot.

Of course, without independent testing this is all speculation, and Intel can at least be applauded for looking to push memory development further, and given the ever increasing amounts of data both consumers and businesses produce and consume, evolving memory and storage is a necessary underlying part of enabling everything from better cloud computing to digital transformation.

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