What one company learned from testing Intel's superfast Optane SSDs

Aerospike finds its database running significantly faster while testing Intel's Optane SSDs

Intel's large-capacity Optane is like the Ferrari of storage: It's super fast, it's cool and it's expensive.

Also, it isn't for everyone yet. That was reiterated by Intel when it introduced its first large capacity SSD, the Optane SSD DC P4800X, last month.

The 375GB DC P4800X is aimed at high-end applications. Optane is also available as low-capacity cache storage on motherboards, allowing Windows 10 and other applications to load faster.

Before release, Intel gave Optane SSDs to a select few customers who had a chance to get their hands dirty with the new technology for longer than a year. The testers included Facebook, IBM, Lenovo, and database company Aerospike, which believes Optane could unite DRAM and SSDs.

Aerospike's database has a hybrid architecture that can take advantage of Optane as both a NAND flash and DRAM replacement. The company also found its database running significantly faster on Optane than on SSDs based on NAND flash.

Beta testing Optane was important because it's different than NAND flash, and software needs to be tuned for Optane's hybrid memory and storage features. Intel's CEO Brian Krzanich has said that Optane could play a unique role in buffering chapters of video games so they load up quickly on PCs.

Intel claims that Optane DC P4800X SSD's random writes are up to 10 times faster than conventional SSDs, while reads are around three times faster. Intel has said the P4800X is not meant for everyday applications or sequential tasks.

Next year, Intel will ship Optane DIMMs to replace DRAM. Optane DIMMs will need to be more durable and faster than SSDs based on the technology because they are on a faster memory bus and will have to survive a larger number of reads and writes. Intel claims Optane will offer more gigabyte density in DIMMs than conventional DRAM.

Optane is based on 3D Xpoint technology, a new form of non-volatile memory that is based on the resistance of cells.

Aerospike was able to play with Optane for longer than a year ahead of its release. Intel's testing platform was comprehensive and helped bring Optane to market significantly faster than NAND flash, said Brian Bulkowski, founder and CTO at Aerospike.

Today's Optane storage can take 10 times more writes than today's standard TLC (triple level cell) or MLC (multi-level cell) NAND flash and also has much higher write speeds, Bulkowski said.

There is also a significant difference on how the Optane and NAND flash SSDs work. In Optane, data can be accessed at the bit level, which is unlike NAND flash, where data is accessed in blocks.

Optane can change bits or bytes, which is something that conventional NAND flash or rotational drives can't do. NAND flash relies on the overwriting of data, and "garbage collectors" cleaning out blocks of data, which can upset the read times. The ability to address data at the bit level makes Optane's reads and writes much faster.

Optane also has an average of 30 drive writes a day, while NAND flash tops out at around 10 drive writes, Bulkowski said.

Optane gives tremendous flexibility to how Aerospike deploys its software because it helps speed up critical tasks like database indexing.

The Aerospike database is highly flexible thanks to its hybrid memory architecture, meaning it can be deployed on different types of systems including all-flash arrays, converged infrastructures, or through major cloud services like Amazon AWS.

The software is notably adaptable to a cluster topology via direct-attached storage managers. The database architecture can be broken into spokes and set up for high availability through database replication on interconnected servers. Optane cuts the network round-trip time, and that helps build a faster and more reliable database.

Aerospike's database can help can create an environment where Optane can be used like RAM for in-memory processing or SSD for caching or hot storage. A similar feature called Memory Drive -- a virtualization layer that helps Optane SSDs mimic DRAM -- is offered by Intel.

The database performance will shoot up when 3D Xpoint moves on to the memory bus with DIMMs, which will be much faster than the NVMe/PCI-Express bus for SSDs, Bulkowski said.

Interesting innovations are going on in NVMe over Fabrics (also called NVM-F) data transfer protocol, which will establish software-defined storage connections without the Fibre Channel volume managers. It gives Aerospike a direct and fast path to storage like Optane over networks like Ethernet. It also gives flexibility for the database to map in new storage, Bulkowski said.

It remains to be seen who the buyers of Optane will be. The storage is offered in the cloud via IBM Bluemix, where companies can port their code and be spared the high cost of acquiring Optane. Bulkowski said his company will provide recommendations on storage based on performance, budget and buying habits. The upcoming Optane DIMMs may command a premium price, he said.

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