Intel pulls the plug on Optane
Intel will wind down its storage class memory business as it plans to shift focus elsewhere, while still supporting current customers using the technology.
During its Q2 2022 earnings call, Intel said it was winding down its storage class memory product, Optane.
Optane is a storage class memory (SCM) product that sits between SSD and DRAM, providing much faster storage than SSDs but much slower than DRAM. It was the result of a joint development with Micron, originally called 3D XPoint. The companies ended joint development in 2018.
It appears that all development on SCM has ended with a line in the earnings call that stated: "the wind-down of our Intel Optane memory business." The company released the following statement:
"We continue to rationalize our portfolio in support of our IDM [integrated device manufacturing] 2.0 strategy. This includes evaluating divesting businesses that are either not sufficiently profitable or not core to our strategic objectives. After careful consideration, Intel plans to cease future product development within its Optane business. We are committed to supporting Optane customers through the transition."
Questions, but no surprises
Industry experts weren't surprised by Intel closing the curtains on Optane. According to Jim Handy, general director and semiconductor analyst at Objective Analysis, the move had been coming for some time and was hinted at in an interview that Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger gave in February to Stratechery.
Intel had been losing billions of dollars on Optane over the years, he said.
In the words of Everett Dirksen, "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money," Handy quoted in reference to the upcoming "Emerging Memories" report from Objective Analysis and Coughlin Associates.
The chart (left) shows losses from the first quarter of 2016 to the fourth quarter of 2020, when Intel stopped including Optane in its Non-Volatile Solutions Group (NSG) financials, Handy said. Total yearly losses were $921 million in 2016, $1.715 billion in 2017, $2.069 billion in 2018, $1.582 billion in 2019, and $576 million in 2020.
The numbers were configured by estimating what NSG should have profited by the losses reported, Handy said. This gives the above reasonable estimates of actual loss.
Also in February 2022, Tom Coughlin, president of Coughlin Associates, wrote of the possible demise of Optane in Forbes. This week's news came as no surprise to him, either.
"I think [Intel] had to subsidize [Optane]," he said. "It had a lot of promise, but they needed to get higher volume to get the cost down."
Optane memory could have given Intel a potential edge selling its CPUs, Coughlin said, but the company decided it wasn't worth the cost.
"The question is: Is there another emerging memory technology that could be a possible [alternative]?" Coughlin said.
Who and what is affected
Several enterprise storage products use Intel Optane, either as an expanded memory footprint or in its SSD form, but there are three vendors that really make use of the technology, according to Marc Staimer, president of Dragon Slayer Consulting: Vast Data, Oracle and MemVerge.
Vast uses Optane as a write buffer and to store metadata to make better use of its quad-level cell storage. MemVerge makes software-defined pools of memory, Big Memory, and uses a combination of DRAM and Optane to lower costs and make memory persist. Oracle uses Optane to accelerate performance of its latency-sensitive workloads in its database platform Exadata.
Vast was quick to release a statement pointing out that while Optane is one brand of SCM that it uses, it has also qualified others. "For our current and future customers, let me be clear: this will not cause any disruption in our ability to supply and support Universal Storage," Vast co-founder and CMO Jeff Denworth wrote in his statement, referring to the company's storage product. "Nothing will change."
In an interview with TechTarget earlier this year, MemVerge CEO and co-founder Charles Fan clarified that while MemVerge uses and supports Optane, it is not necessary for MemVerge's software. The vendor's vision of a Big Memory future does not change with the announcement of Optane ceasing production, Fan said.
"Our software can run well in a DRAM-only environment and in the cloud, where in most instances there is no Optane," Fan said. "Optane is an optional component to use our technology."
The compute express link (CXL) memory interconnect is getting closer to reality, and several major memory vendors -- including Samsung, SK hynix and Micron -- plan to introduce CXL memory products Memverge can use, Fan said.
On CXL, Coughlin said that Intel was looking to include Optane as a pooled memory within the CXL system as part of a heterogeneous pool with various latency performance memory.
"That opens the possibility of SSDs playing more of a role in a CXL system," he said.
Oracle had not yet responded with a comment.
Optane was an important part of the architecture for these companies and it will have some effect, Staimer said. Optane is less costly than DRAM, which will affect costs if a vendor has to switch to DRAM-only environments, he said.
Vast Data architecture doesn't change, though it may feel an impact, Staimer said, explaining that there will be a performance difference, but it may only be slight.
Adam Armstrong is a TechTarget news writer covering file and block storage hardware and private clouds. He previously worked at StorageReview.com.