Intel's first Optane storage modules came out in early January, but were only 32GB. Larger Optane drives with up to 1.5TB of storage capacity are on their way, and we now have a better understanding of how they're going to perform.
The first large-capacity Optane SSD drive is the DC P4800X, which has 375GB of storage and started shipping on Sunday. The $1,520 SSD is targeted at servers. (Intel didn't provide regional availability information.)
Intel says an enterprise Optane SSD with 750GB will ship in the second quarter, and that a 1.5TB SSD will ship in the second half of this year.
These SSDs will fit as add-in cards in the PCI-Express/NVMe and U.2 slots. That means they could work in some workstations and servers based on AMD's 32-core Naples processors.
Optane will also ship in the form of DRAM modules next year. Intel did not share information on when it would ship consumer SSDs.
Optane has been hyped as a new class of superfast memory and storage that could replace today's SSDs and DRAM. Intel has claimed Optane is up to 10 times faster than conventional SSDs.
The technology underpinning Optane is 3D Xpoint, a form of memory that stores data based on the resistance of cells. Intel developed 3D Xpoint with Micron, which later this year will release an Optane competitor called QuantX, aimed at enterprise SSDs.
For the first time, Intel has shared internal benchmarks on the large-capacity Optane drives compared to conventional flash SSDs. The Optane SSD DC P4800X was pitted against the three-year old SSD DC P3700 flash SSD, which is considered one of Intel's fastest data-center SSDs in terms of random reads and writes.
The benchmarks indicate that the new Optane drive, in most real-world uses, won't reach the levels of performance that Intel has been hyping up to now. On top of that, the benchmarks were conducted in complex environments that made the numbers hard to interpret.
In a nutshell, Intel said that if you run sequential tasks, it would be better to use conventional SSDs. Optane lights up when running random reads and writes, which are common in servers and high-end PCs. Optane's random writes reach up to 10 times faster compared to conventional SSDs, but only when utilization is being pushed to extremes, while reads are around three times faster.
In a standard 4K data block, with 70% read and 30% write, the P4800X was five to eight times faster than the older P3700. The responsiveness of the drive increased with the data load.
Aside from the unusual benchmarking presentation by Intel, Optane has promise, and it could be the storage technology of the future. However, flash-based SSDs are well-established and Optane won't unseat them overnight, according to analysts.