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Intel has made waves in the server SSD market with the reveal of its Optane SSD DC P4800X Series this March. Based the company’s in-house 3D XPoint memory, the DC P4800X Series is scheduled for shipments in the second half of 2017. “3D XPoint greatly outperforms NAND Flash and will help Intel reinforce its leading position in the high-end segment of the SSD market that has become increasingly competitive,” said Alan Chen, senior research manager of DRAMeXchange, a division of TrendForce. “In the future, the product roadmap of 3D XPoint could include client-grade SSDs and storage-class memory (SCM) devices. Intel naturally wants to expand the adoption of this technology in other areas as to create flexibility in pricing and consumption of in-house production capacity.”
DRAMeXchange’s data show that Intel was the top brand in the global server SSD market for 2016 with more than 30% of the market share. Rival Samsung closely followed Intel with a roughly similar market share. So far, Intel’s leadership in the server SSD market comes from leveraging the company’s dominance in the CPU market. However, Samsung and later entrants to this field are gaining experience and have adopted aggressive pricing to erode Intel’s market shares for mid-range and low-end server SSDs.
Chen added: “Intel lags behind Samsung and Toshiba in the production capacity for NAND Flash. Putting forward a new premium SSD line that uses a proprietary memory technology is a way for Intel to maintain high profit margin for its server business with limited NAND Flash capacity. Furthermore, the introduction of 3D XPoint will help Intel reduce the risk of being overly reliant on the high-end server SSD market. Intel later on will likely use 3D XPoint for client-grade SSDs and SCM devices. By introducing this memory technology to other application markets, Intel can have more flexibility in terms of pricing and capacity consumption.”
Comparatively speaking, the price per gigabyte (US$/GB) of a 375GB SSD from the DC P4800X Series is about four times as much as that of a NAND Flash-based SSD with similar specifications and PCIe interface. Whether 3D XPoint can penetrate into the mid-range and low-end product segments will be determined mainly by pricing. This new type of memory chips have to become more attractive cost-wise for OEMs in the client-grade SSD and SCM device markets.
From the design perspective, SSDs from the DC P4800X Series use 128Gb 3D XPoint chips that are stacked together. The interface is PCIe and the controller chip is developed in house. In terms of capacity options, Intel will first release 375GB products and then roll out 750GB and 1.5TB models. According to the listed specifications, SSDs of this series is capable of reaching 2,400MB/s for sequential reading, 2,200MB/s for sequential writing and over 500,000 in IOPS. Furthermore, they have a typical latency of less than 10 microseconds and score 30 on the major endurance indicator DWPD (drive writes per day). “The DC 4800X Series is presented as a SSD solution that will fully take advantage of PCIe G3x4 while having a high level of endurance,” said Chen.
Based on the official recommended price, a 375GB SSD of the DC P4800X Series is set at around US$4/GB. Meanwhile, a NAND Flash-based SSD with similar specifications and PCIe interface can cost as low as US$1/GB. This four-fold difference means that the DC P4800X Series is probably targeting the high-end segment of the server SSD market during the initial release period.
Intel’s new 3D XPoint-based SSDs can expand the capacity of server DRAM via the company’s proprietary virtualization software known as Intel Memory Drive Technology, which is a separate product and costs extra. The bundle price for the 375GB SSD of the DC P4800X Series and the virtualization software together comes to around US$5/GB. Considering the average sales price of server DRAM DIMMs (currently at about US$7/GB), the bundle price is actually competitive in this respect.
“Intel’s new SSD line is between server DRAM DIMMs and NAND Flash server SSDs in terms of efficiency and pricing,” noted Chen. “3D XPoint-based SSDs lack the performance capability to fully substitute server DRAM DIMMs. However, products from the DC P4800X Series can take on the role of SCM devices and work with server DRAM DIMMs to improve the operation of the entire server system.”
Moreover, SSDs using 3D XPoint have several advantages over NAND Flash-based counterparts. The random reading and random writing speeds of the former are faster and more consistent. DC P4800X products also vastly outperform conventional NAND Flash-based SSDs on the latency and endurance indicators. Disregarding the price difference, 3D XPoint-based SSDs are superior to NAND Flash-based SSDs in every aspect.