Life After Optane

By Mitch Lewis, Friday, August 5th 2022

Analyst Blogs

Over the past few years, Storage Class Memory (SCM) has become synonymous with Intel’s Optane technology – due to Intel’s role in pioneering the technology (alongside partner Micron), and a strong marketing campaign to promote the technology under the “Optane” brand. Optane had been commonly thought of as a major advancement in storage media by providing memory-like performance with the persistence and capacity of storage. Intel’s commitment to SCM however appears to be coming to an end, as Intel has recently announced the closing of their Optane memory business.

For Intel, the impacts of this are mostly straight forward – they are exiting the memory business and will no longer be developing Optane. The more interesting impact is that of storage vendors who have adopted the technology – how will they transition away from Optane as Intel winds down the business?

During Optane’s rather short tenure it has received support from a number of storage vendors. A number large storage vendors have added support for Optane SCM devices, primarily as caching devices, in their existing products – including Dell with PowerMax and PowerStore, HPE Nimble and Alletra, and Pure Storage’s Direct Memory Modules for Flash Array. A greater impact, however, may be felt by vendors who have designed products in which SCM is core to the solution, such as VAST Data.

A key component to VAST Data’s Universal Storage system is a large SCM layer that acts as a buffer in front of QLC flash. VAST’s original design was highly dependent on Optane, but the company has additionally added support for Kioxia SCM devices – a now seemingly wise decision when considering Intel’s decision on Optane. Utilization of other SCM suppliers appears to be the clear path forward for VAST Data. The company has made this clear by quickly issuing a statement that “Nothing will change” (Source: VAST Data) due to Intel’s decision, and that it is well equipped to move forward with alternative SCM suppliers that can provide similar characteristics to Optane.

While other vendors have not publicly stated their plans to support other SCM suppliers, it is likely that others will follow VAST’s lead to continue their support of SCM devices. Notable alternatives include SCM devices from Samsung and Kioxia.

There also exists a possibility that Optane itself could be acquired through an alternative supplier. The news regarding Intel’s decision is still rather fresh, and it remains to be seen if Optane could live on via an acquisition. While Intel has made it clear that they themselves do not intend to continue development of Optane, they may be willing to sell the business if they find a suitable buyer. This would provide storage vendors searching for SCM options a new avenue to continue utilizing Optane SCM technology.

An alternative sentiment, is that the need for SCM will be reduced as the industry adopts CXL (Compute Express Link) as an alternative. CXL is a cache-coherent interconnect standard being developed by a consortium made up of many large IT vendors (including Intel). With Intel’s recent decision in mind, CXL-based memory tiering utilizing pooled memory has been discussed as a possible replacement of Optane devices. While CXL continues to develop into a promising future technology, it should be noted that CXL is an interconnect while Optane and other SCM are devices. In certain situations, use of CXL memory tiering may provide an alternative architecture to utilizing SCM as a caching tier, however the two are overall fundamentally different technologies and are more likely complementary than competitive.

One final approach to moving on from Optane, may be simply just that – moving on from Optane. While a large number of vendors have elected to support Optane, if implementing SCM isn’t worth the cost to their customers, vendors may simply move on from supporting the technology. The drawback to SCM adoption, despite the technical advantages it brings along, has always been the cost. Meanwhile the assumption has been that eventually the cost will come down, however Intel’s decision may signify that they believe it will remain an expensive solution and limit the overall demand. While vendors such as VAST are adamant that SCM can be a key piece to an economic storage solution, other vendors may simply decide SCM is not a cost-effective component for their product.

One notable vendor who appears to have taken this stance quite recently is Pure Storage with their upgraded FlashBlade //S system, which they specifically stated “avoids the need for expensive caching solutions and storage class memory” (Source: Pure Storage). While this might simply be deflecting from a limitation of compatible devices, it may also signify a shift in which vendors acknowledge that SCM devices are not the appropriate media for their product. With the departure of Optane, it could be possible for more storage vendors to begin taking this stance.

Intel’s announcement to end their development of Optane is a big hit to the development of SCM technology. It is important to note however, that Intel is not the only SCM vendor and as VAST Data has already shown, it is entirely possible for storage vendors to shift their product to support other suppliers such as Samsung or Kioxia. It is likely that many other vendors will follow VAST’s lead in this area, while others may simply decide that SCM technology is not the right economic option for their product, or explore different approaches such as leveraging up and coming CXL technology.

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