Speed is money. Modern businesses need to innovate faster to outpace their competitors. And for most companies, innovation comes from data: massive amounts of reliable, up-to-date, rapidly accessible data. C-level executives and line-of-business (LOB) managers need to mash up information on customers, sales, social media, and other sources into useful insights they can use to improve the customer experience and drive sales.
The need for speed has pushed IT organizations to look for efficiencies and new ways to process data faster. But regardless of the underlying infrastructure—from cloud to software-defined networking to traditional data-center servers—speed is ultimately dependent on storage. Almost every time an app needs to access data, it reads that data from a drive. That process adds latency, which can significantly slow things down, especially for large databases that are used to rapidly process information into useful insights.
One way companies deal with latency is by cramming as much data as possible into DRAM. But DRAM is costly and limited in capacity. Solid-state drives (SSDs) offer a much more scalable and affordable option and are much faster than traditional hard drives. But even SSDs have inherent read/write latencies and protocol overhead that can’t keep up with modern demands. And SSDs aren’t even close to DRAM when it comes to speed.
Intel Optane Technology Brings Something New to the Table
Drive technologies hadn’t really changed much over the last few decades. But in 2017, Intel offered a major leap forward in storage when it brought new Intel Optane SSDs to the market. Intel Optane SSDs are built on proprietary 3D XPoint technology (co-developed with Micron Technology) that maximizes density and allows systems to access data faster. And because Intel Optane SSDs aren’t NAND-based like traditional SSDs, they have much lower latency.
Intel Optane SSDs set a new bar for non-volatile storage performance. But for all they can do, Intel Optane SSDs still aren’t as speedy as DRAM. Businesses that rely on speed for data processing can add Intel Optane SSDs to their storage toolbox for some data, which greatly expands their options, but these companies are still reliant on DRAM for in-memory processing of their most critical data.
Intel Persistent Memory: An Industry Disruptor
By the end of 2018, Intel will have a new storage option that could truly be an industry disruptor. The new Intel offering will merge the persistent, high-density benefits of non-volatile SSDs with the lower latency, high performance of DRAM into one package. Intel persistent memory, as it’s currently called (expect new branding prior to release), has a similar form-factor to DRAM, but it is a completely different technology. It connects directly to the memory bus, which allows the CPU to access data without driver overhead.[i] Intel says that its new persistent memory will be available in sizes much larger than traditional DRAM, and at a fraction of the cost.1 Depending on final pricing for the new modules, companies could potentially increase their in-memory storage while significantly lowering overall costs, based on the price-per-gigabyte.
Intel persistent memory creates new opportunities for businesses to replace existing SSDs, replace or expand existing DRAM, or create a completely new storage tier in between standard DRAM and Intel Optane SSDs or NAND-based drives. For example, SAP HANA users could use a mixture of DRAM and Intel persistent memory for critical “hot” data, while moving large quantities of “warm” data into Intel Optane SSDs. This approach would enable data analysts to rapidly process large amounts of data essentially at DRAM speeds, but at a much lower cost per gigabyte.
Intel and SAP showcased their joint technologies at the SAP SAPPHIRE NOW conference in May 2017. You can read about that announcement on the Intel website and even see a demo recorded live at the SAPPHIRE NOW conference. In the demo, a server was configured with pre-release versions of next-generation Intel Xeon Scalable processors, operating with 192 gigabytes of DRAM and 1.5 terabytes of Intel persistent memory, in addition to running on a development version of the SAP HANA platform.[ii] By deftly handling large data capacities at high performance levels, the platform showed the possibilities for using Intel persistent memory to run entire databases in memory for low-latency computing.
SAP admins will also be attracted by the benefits of having non-volatile memory. SAP HANA server restarts can be quite time-consuming as the systems read data back into DRAM. But with Intel persistent memory, data isn’t lost during shutdown. As a result, restarts are considerably faster because data doesn’t have to be re-read from scratch into the DIMMs.
Prepare Apps Today for Intel Persistent Memory Release Later This Year
It’s important to note that apps will need to be rearchitected to make use of Intel persistent memory. Adoption will probably start slowly, but it will increase rapidly as companies update their software offerings. SAP is already planning to support Intel persistent memory in an upcoming release of the SAP HANA platform. That release will be timed to match the next update of Intel Xeon Scalable processors, which will also be required to use Intel persistent memory. All three products—a new version of the SAP HANA platform, new versions of Intel Xeon Scalable processors (code named Cascade Lake), and Intel persistent memory modules—are slated for close or concurrent release later in 2018.
If you’re a developer interested in adding support for Intel persistent memory, Intel has a video series that describes how to get started today, so your apps will be ready when Intel persistent memory hits the market. If you’d like more information on the technology behind Intel persistent memory and Intel Optane technology, check out this earlier blog post I wrote about 3D XPoint technology.
Keep an eye on our blog for updates as Intel gets closer to releasing persistent memory DIMMs with its next Intel Xeon Scalable processor refresh later in 2018. And to keep up with more emerging trends and technologies, follow Prowess on our blog, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
 Intel. “Enhancing High-Performance Computing with Persistent Memory Technology.” December 2017. https://software.intel.com/en-us/articles/enhancing-high-performance-computing-with-persistent-memory-technology.
[ii] Intel. “Intel Highlights at SAP SAPPHIRE 2017.” May 2017. https://itpeernetwork.intel.com/intel-big-announcements-sap-sapphire/.