When computer chip giant Intel first announced its Intel Optane technology, the expectations were immediately very high. The idea was fairly straightforward: what if you could combine the best of both worlds of a traditional hard drive (HDD) and a faster solid-state drive (SSD)?
There have been experiments with this in the past and manufacturers even participated in a shortlived trend of releasing hybrid hard drives with solid-state storage (SSHDD) as a larger cache, and Intel Optane was supposed to be the spiritual successor to that idea – with promises that it could even be faster than traditional NVME storage.
However, some things don’t always happen according to plan. Shortly after its release, the idea of anyone using Optane quickly vanished and the concept didn’t become as popular as Intel had hoped.
But why? What happened with Intel Optane? Even if it wasn’t a commercial success, is Intel Optane still worth using today?
Let’s find out!
A short history of Intel Optane and how it works
Right, well, first things first. Intel Optane isn’t particularly new technology and first came to life in 2017. If you’ve followed the tech news in that period, you might remember some announcements made around some new “3D XPoint” storage technology co-developed by my CPU manufacturer Intel and memory mastodon Micron. 3D XPoint wasn’t a particularly catchy or marketable name, so they later changed the wording to “Intel Optane”.
Its sole purpose? Provide an alternative storage solution and try to find a golden mean between the large storage capacity and lower price points of hard drives, and the fast, super-quick, and low-latency solid state drives. In terms of latency and storage size, Intel Optane (still referred to as 3D XPoint such as in the slide above) was supposed to sit somewhere between DRAM internal memory and NAND flash storage used in SSDs.
The idea sounds absolutely great, but the execution has been quite disappointing, to say the least.
In short, Intel Optane is an evolution of the older SSHDD hybrid storage devices from the past. The technology acts as a sort of superpowered cache for your hard drive, typically the place where you store data files or game installations. This cache is being built on non-volatile memory solid-state memory, like an SSD. Unlike your internal RAM memory, bits and bytes remain stored on this memory, even when the power gets killed.
However, the NVM memory on an Intel Optane card would have a lower storage capacity than your regular SSD, since it would accurately know which kind of data you access frequently on your computer. Thanks to some intelligent communication between your hard drive, CPU, and the Intel Optane expansion card, the user experience is a lot more fluid than ‘just’ a traditional hard drive. The performance was pretty darn good as Optane memory also didn’t have to be moved around and remained extremely responsive under load. Its industry-leading endurance was one of the major selling points of Optane.
In other words, combine a large traditional hard drive with an Intel Optane card, and you’ve got yourself a faster storage medium for a smaller price than a “real” SSD. Intel tries to explain the system as being a sort of “sous chef” in an explanatory YouTube video aimed towards its business clientele. The Optane drives were available in the same form factors as regular SSDs, with M.2 and PCIe being the most common ones. For more specialized systems, U.2 cards were also available.
Why did Intel Optane fail?
The above sounds absolutely great on paper, right? So why did this innovative storage technology actually fail?
Well, an important thing to keep in mind is that Optane was first released in 2017. Back in the day, solid-state drives weren’t nearly as inexpensive as they are today. Just to give you an indication: you can find an extremely 1TB PCIe 4.0 NVMe SSD today for about fifty dollars. In the time period when Optane was released, an SSD of the same capacity would cost you well over three hundred dollars – and that’s not even taking inflation into account.
In other words, the market for SSDs has changed drastically, and prices dropped fairly quickly.
Aside from the quick evolution of the storage market, Intel simply didn’t price its Optane products attractively for consumers. Sure, there were some enterprise products that certainly had a rightful place in the market, but at some point, Intel asked thousands of dollars for an SSD with Intel Optane technology. Even in 2017, that price point was just way too high.
The technology never evolved enough (and was also never popular enough) to cut down costs en evolve into an economy of scale. Intel’s most consumer-oriented model, the 905p, had a recommended retail price of around 2000 US Dollars for a mere storage capacity of 1.5TB making, it considerably more expensive than a regular SSD and slashing all dreams of an “affordable hybrid storage solution”.
The final nail in the coffin of Intel Optane was simply the incredible evolution we’ve seen with regular SSDs. I still remember the day when SATA SSDs were first introduced and made available to consumers, and it truly felt like we were entering a new era.
Fast forward just a couple of years, and it’s incredible to see the progress that has been made. For consumers, latency is practically non-existent now and we’re reaching throughput speeds of over 10,000 MB per second. With these speeds, you’d be able to install your average Call of Duty in mere seconds and transfer a 4K movie literally in the blink of an eye.
Is Intel Optane still worth using today in 2023?
No, Intel Optane technology has been rendered obsolete due to faster and cheaper solid-state drives, completely destroying any benefits that Optane may have provided. You can simply get super quick SSD storage for low prices now, so there’s absolutely no reason to get a hybrid solution that wasn’t really ever well-supported in the first place. Even for gaming, you’d be much better off putting demanding games on an SSD and older titles on a hard drive (if you don’t have the SSD capacity to spare).
In 2022, Intel officially announced the end of the Intel Optane technology, an announcement that certainly did not come unexpectedly. The Optane division of an already struggling Intel reportedly created a half-billion-dollar deficit in Intel’s financials.
Once, Intel Optane was thought of as the storage medium of the future, but it’s clear that Intel’s trying to bury this commercial failure – albeit a very promising concept and idea – in the past.