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Intel and Roberts Space Industries Present: The Intel Optane SSD 900P at Citizencon 2947

Anyone who has been following the Star Citizen saga probably has one question before all others. The game started as the brainchild of Chris Roberts, (known for Freelancer and Wing Commander) and after an initial Kickstarter, rose to prominence as the most contributed-to crowdfunding campaign so far. But after raising over $160,000,000, (seriously, Roberts Space Industries stopped adding new stretch goals after $65,000,000) pledgers and players are still wondering when the massive, open-world,  hybrid space-sim/First Person Shooter will see the light of day.

While we don’t have an answer there, we do know that the first players to explore the verse will do so on an incredible new technology platform.

But we aren’t talking about the latest in starfighter avionics, quantum jump drives, or neutron cannons. While those are still about nine-hundred years out, we do have some insider information on some of the latest computing technology available in the 21st century, which Intel, along with Roberts Space Industries, unveiled  this morning at CitizenCon 2947, the official Star Citizen convention.

Note: The product photos and benchmarks in this article are based on engineering samples provided by Intel, and the final release product may vary.

Intel already made waves with its Optane memory earlier this year: These two devices were M.2 style modules in 32GB and 16GB capacities, and were the first consumer market products available as part of what Intel claims is a “disruptive” leap forward in storage technology. While the modules were capable as acting as diminutive SSDs, they were never intended as such. The Optane modules were designed as an additional layer of “cache,” essentially a way of-pre loading data from the hard drive to then be grabbed by the CPU to use.

In essence, Optane modules are meant to be used alongside a traditional spindle drive or even a SATA-connected SSD in order to improve overall storage access speed and performance. While caching has been in common use for a long time, Optane revolutionized use of the idea. Intel claims that Optane memory is able to learn which files are the most commonly accessed on a given system, and (because it is non-volatile memory,) store them as “hot-files” which can be loaded in quickly via NVMe protocol over PCIe lanes.

The other exciting technology in play here is Intel’s 3D XPoint (pronounced “crosspoint”) storage medium architecture, which promises to revolutionize how data is stored and accessed. In a very basic form, the way 3D Xpoint works is in its name. Each bit is a pillar that consists of a selector cell atop a memory cell. The pillars are laid out on a plane, with wires on top corresponding to rows, and wires on the bottom corresponding to columns.

When a column wire and row wire are both activated, (i.e. two wires that “cross a point”) a specific bit is addressed, and by varying the voltage, the memory cell can be given a value of 1 or 0. This arrangement leads to several advances: Most importantly, transistors are no longer necessary, and additional planes of bits can be stacked on top of one another, like a Jenga tower of memory. The net result is an incredible increase in bit density, while decreasing the time necessary to address and interact with a specific bit.

In order to capitalize on the gains of Optane and 3D XPoint technologies, Intel unveiled its Optane SSD 900P series drives earlier today at Citizencon 2947. The Intel Optane SSD 900P packages 3D XPoint storage media to create blazingly fast consumer-grade drives.

Specifications, Benchmarks, and Testing. Oh My!

All that technology sounds great in theory, but we wanted to know how well the 900P SSDs would perform in the real world. Intel hooked us up with three 900P drives:  one 2.5” drive with 280GB capacity, and two Add-In Card (AIC) form factor drives, one each in 280GB and 480GB.

Intel has made some bold specification claims for its SSD 900Ps, the most important of which are: sequential read and write speeds of 2.5Gbp/s and 2.0Gbp/s respectively, and an upward IOPS limit of 550,000 (read) and 500,000 (write) for random 4k operations, with an approximate latency of less than 10μS.

We ran some benchmarks or our own and are pleased to share the results. For reference, all tests were performed on the same computer, with the following specifications:

  • MSI Z270 GAMING M7 (Z270 Chipset)
  • Intel Core i7 7700K @4.20Ghz
  • 2x 4Gb G.Skill Ripjaws V DDR4-2133
  • 1065W Power Supply

We did our first round of testing on our only 480GB contender:

We ran three different benchmarking utilities on each of the devices we tested, and on the Optane SSD 900P, we found that under the right conditions, our result largely matched up (and sometimes exceeded) Intel’s claims.

We ran three different benchmarking utilities on each of the devices we tested, and on the SSD 900P, we found that under the right conditions, our result largely matched up (and sometimes exceeded) Intel’s claims.

Now, that’s a lot of data, from a few different benchmarking programs. It’s a lot to parse, but let's try to examine these results in plain English. We’ll start with some brief descriptions of some of the terminology involved.

What we’re looking at closely here is MB/s rates and, where available, IOPS calculations. Each benchmark we used looked at read/write speeds under different conditions. Sequential (or “Seq” in some instances,) operations are simpler: Data is written to bits in a logical, sequential order. Where sequential operations are not specified, the test is considered random: data is written to sectors at random, which is more taxing on some storage mediums.

“4K” tests refer to the size of data packages used by the benchmarks. All this means is that many benchmarking utilities perform their tests by measuring how quickly a disk can read and write chunks of data that are 4 kilobytes in size. While 4K-based tests are standard, there are variations.

Finally, tests with a “QD” number refer to “Queue Depth,” where the following number corresponds to the amount of pending read/write requests. In essence these tests measure how quickly a drive can get around to the next task after finishing the previous one.

IOPS, (In/Out Operations) while useful in determining overall disk performance, are fairly useless in a vacuum. They are usually used in terms of a mathematical formula (specifically, IOPS * TransferSizeInBytes = BytesPerSec) for determining overall drive speeds. IOPS can vary greatly due to other parameters involved in a given test, which is why they have less value as a standalone metric.

Keep in mind that in regards to storage medium benchmarking “I/O” is largely synonymous with “read/write.” Both terms refer to an input or output of data to or from the drive.

We ran three different benchmarking utilities on each of the devices we tested, and on the Optane SSD 900P, we found that under the right conditions, our result largely matched up (and sometimes exceeded) Intel’s claims.

Our first test showed us several things: most importantly, that the Optane 900P seems to put up the best results when under a heavier workload. The randomized 4K QD operation got the closest to Intel’s claimed 550,000 IOPS, and also maintained a very fast MB/s read rate. It also maintained fairly high read rates while handling larger 32K and 128K packages, though did see a noticeable drop. The fastest read rate was achieved on the sequential 4K test, which here was a few dozen MBps short of 2.5 GBps. Write tests showed fairly similar results. The highest total write rate was achieved on the Sequential 4K operation, while 4K QD16 demonstrated the best balance of transfer rate and IOPS. Overall, this seems to  indicate that the Optane SSD 900P drives excel at rapidly processing large collections of smaller files.

Our second benchmark ran similar tests, but had some very interesting results. In a sequential QD32 4K test, the overall read and write speeds actually exceeded Intel’s claims by at least 100MBps. It’s important to note a few other factors here, however: consumer market applications that directly govern device level I/O storage logic are already fairly rare, (being mostly the purview of enterprise or database entities,) meaning programs that use an equivalent scheme would be doubly so.

Also, flash storage generally doesn’t see as much improvement between random and sequential I/O operations as do spindle disk drives, which suggests something intriguing in the way our 900P drive handles sequential I/O requests. So while the average user might not see these speeds in daily use applications, it’s incredibly interesting that under the right conditions, Intel’s new series of drives can turn out results like this.

Our third benchmark, while not as broad in scope as the others, confirms our results from our second test. Again we saw speeds well in excess of 2.5 GBps Read and 2.0GBps Write.

We also wanted to compare the OptaNE SSD 900P drives to some older technologies, in order to highlight the difference. We didn’t do quite as much testing on these other devices, as there is already plenty out there about them.

We wanted to give the Optane SSD 900P some solid competition, so we compared it against another NVME-capable opponent, a Samsung 960 EVO M.2 SSD. Here were our results:

We also really wanted to demonstrate the astronomical leap forward the Optane 900Ps are, so we benchmarked an Intel 545 SSD, which is an older SATA-based drive, under the same circumstances. Here you can really see the difference:

Reach for the Stars, Citizen

Intel’s promotional materials for the Optane SSD 900P discuss a number of high end use-cases, such as engineering workloads, media rendering, and data-intensive simulations. Oh, and also gaming. Let’s talk about gaming!

Every advance in storage technology has offered new possibilities for games. As capacities soared and prices dropped, games with more assets and greater detail became feasible. The shrinking dimensions of storage made mobile gaming platforms viable. Flash SSDs and later, NVMe-capable devices decreased load times. Something as fast as Optane technology has the potential to offer almost seamless transitions between environments and levels of detail. Large-scale, open world sandbox games stand to benefit the most from this leap, as load speed is already proving to be somewhat of a bottleneck in how large and immersive these game worlds can be.

While still far from being the fully-realized universe RSI has in development, the current alpha build of Star Citizen offers several large environments that we thought might be a relevant way of putting the 900P SSD through its paces, especially because of RSI and Intel’s new relationship.

The largest environment in the current stable release of Star Citizen is the Crusader spaceport “persistent universe destination.” It’s the closest experience to the full open universe the game will eventually offer, featuring a central spaceport, which orbits the planet Crusader in the Stanton II solar system. The spaceport is large enough for many players to congregate within it, and the system itself features a number of landmarks and functional mission areas players can “quantum jump” to.

For this benchmark, we ran a series of identical tests (using the same system as we did in our earlier benchmarks) on three different drives: the 480GB AIC Optane SSD 900P, a Samsung 960 EVO, and an Intel 545 SSD. On each storage device, we ran the same test. We simply clocked the time from hitting the “Load Spaceport” button to when loading was done, which is marked by a moment of complete blackness before the player character wakes up in his quarters. This test was repeated five times per device before being crunched into an average time. Our results are shown below:

Though these are small sample sizes, they do begin to illustrate the shorter load times offered by the Optane 900P series SSDs. We also felt that there was a reduction in additional loading while exploring the environment, such as when transferring through airlocks.

We’re curious to see how other games could benefit from Optane technology, and hopefully we can devote some time to more exhaustive testing with these drives in the future.

The Sabre Raven Special

The Intel Optane SSD 900Ps are already very attractive for any number of professional or entertainment applications. But here’s something extra enticing for players already invested in Star Citizen: players who buy an Intel SSD 900P will gain access to an exclusive ship in-game, the Aegis Dynamics Sabre Raven. Details on exactly what this ship is, as well as exactly how to obtain it, are a little scarce right now, but here’s what we do know:

The Saber Raven itself is single-seat starfighter, described as a “Ship Assassin.” It is known that it will have some kind of EMP-like electronic warfare device, as well as unspecified stealth capability. Purportedly, it has “KRIG ‘Quareller’ Long-Rang Laser Cannons” though it is unknown if KRIG is a separate organization or a contraction of Kruger Intergalactic. There is some confusion as to exactly what the Sabre Raven’s role is; the base Aegis Dynamics Saber is already a single seat fighter with stealth capabilities, and as such it is up in the air if the Sabre variant is solely a cosmetic variation (such as the Sabre Comet package) or offers any difference in performance.

Also unknown at time of publication is how exactly to acquire a Sabre Raven. Broadly speaking, we know that that redeemable online codes will be offered alongside purchase of an Intel® Optane™ 900P SSD, but the duration and quantity of this promotion, as well as the participation of specific retailers, is yet to be announced.

The 280GB model will sell for an MSRP of $389.99, while the 480GB version will run for $599.99.