Optane: Intel Builds a Supercharger for PCs


I was briefed on this a few weeks back, and Optane is an impressive piece of technology.  Optane is Intel’s brand name for 3D XPoint memory, a brand-new memory architecture which has speed a bit slower than DRAM but otherwise performs like Flash. There is one important difference, though; unlike Flash, when Optane writes it can overwrite without having to erase first.  This makes this new memory type fast but expensive; so, while enterprise servers and workstations may consider using Optane instead of an SSD, or flash memory, Intel is implementing Optane for the rest of us on PCs kind of like you’d put a blower on a car, as a speed booster but not as a replacement for what you are currently using. 

Let’s talk about that this week.

The Secret Problem

One of the industry secrets we don’t talk about much because it makes users look stupid is that a lot of folks choose their PC configurations based on drive size instead of speed.   Now, the reason this is stupid is because big drives are hard drives, old magnetic media, and fast drives are SSD drives which cost more but are affordable at reasonable sizes now.  Over the last 30 or so years that hard drives have been in use, Windows, applications, and particularly games have gotten a lot larger, so this slow performance on hard drives is resulting in lots of complaints about current generation systems being slow.  These old hard drives can’t keep up with current generation processors and, as a result, you have a PCs where folks have paid for Intel’s best processors not able to use that performance because they bottleneck on the drives. 

This is kind of like someone buying a performance looking car like a Camaro, Mustang, or Challenger, putting a 4-cylinder engine in it and then complaining that the performance sucks even though the price and gas mileage are clearly more attractive.  

I drive a Mercedes GLA 45 AMG, which is a performance car with a 4-clinder engine, but I don’t complain that it’s slow; in fact in a drag race, off the line, this car is faster than the other far more expensive AMG cars Mercedes makes.  It gets there because it has a big turbo charger that gives the car nearly 400 horsepower, which, for a little hatchback, is a ton (and it doesn’t hurt that the car has four-wheel drive for traction). 

So, what Intel has done with Optane is kind of like what Mercedes did with the supercharger; it created a module that boosts the performance of whatever drive you have.  A 32 or 64 gigabyte caching drive that can even make your hard drive based machine seem far faster.

The Intel Supercharger

Now, this isn’t as easy as just bolting on the new memory module; you do need a motherboard that will take this new type of memory.  Those boards have been in the market for a number of months now and, if you have a gaming system you built, swapping out the motherboard isn’t that hard (I did it myself earlier this month).  It took me a few hours but that was largely because I used the opportunity to also swap out the power supply and rerouting the power lines took me some time because I’d done such a good job of hiding them the first time.  

But adding the new memory module should only take a few minutes, and then you just load the new drivers and you are done.  With that, suddenly, your machine should be a ton faster.

The new speed will be seen in faster boot times; faster application load times, with games seeing faster paging and chapter loading; and with things like video and picture editing experiencing far faster overall performance.  Your PC will seem supercharged. 

Wrapping Up

Much of the performance problem that folks seem to be complaining about surrounds their tendency to choose slow drives with lots of capacity over fast drives with less.  This resulted in machines that are bottlenecked on their drives.  Intel’s first implementation of Optane for the desktop is positioned to fix this problem by basically allowing a hard drive based machine to perform in line with an SSD based system.   Now, given that Optane is substantially faster than SSD, it can also boost SSD systems. However, you won’t see as big a jump because SSD is already substantially faster than hard drives.  

So, Optane on PCs is basically a PC Supercharger; it will make slow hard drive based systems much faster and SSD based systems faster still.   These Optane modules will become available at the end of April and you will need to make sure your PC will take one, which may mean waiting until you can buy a new PC. When that time comes, you might consider selecting one that is Optane ready because faster is generally better.    

Edited by Alicia Young

President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

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