Need memory, Intel’s Optane DC PM to the rescue

I attended Intel’s DataCentric Innovation Conference Tech Field Day eXclusive (TFDx) last April. There were a couple of items Intel presented at the show that peaked my interest there, one of which was DL Boost (see my Intel’s new DL Boost for AI inferencing blog post) and the other was Optane DC PM (data center persistent memory). This post is about Optane DC PM.

As you already know, Optane SSDs have been on the market now for at least a year or so and have not gained much market traction as of yet. I and others attribute this to the high price differential between Optane SSDs and NVMe Flash SSDs but others may say it’s a matter of production yields – probably a little of both.

But Optane, as announced, always had another form factor (if that’s the right term), as persistent memory that could dramatically increase the size of server memory to support new memory intensive applications at a lower price than DRAM.

I was at Nutanix .NEXT conference last week and saw a 4 socket server from DELL that had 6TB of DRAM in it (and 4-44 core CPUs). I didn’t ask the price but when I mentioned I wanted one for my home office, they said it could easily heat my house. So the other problem with a lot of DRAM is power consumption.

Optane DC PM (data center persistent) memory is intended to solve both the high cost and high power consumption problems of DRAM.

How does it work in a server

The newer Intel motherboards support up to 12 slots of memory per socket. And up to 6 of these can be Optane DC PM (512GB DIMM) or 3TB per socket. Optane DC PM is accessed via L1-L2 caching just like any other memory. Apparently with a dual socket system you can have up to 11 Optane DC PM DIMMs on the motherboard.

L1-L2 cache access times are on the order of picoseconds (10**[-12] seconds), DRAM is on the order of nanoseconds (10**[-9] seconds) and flash is on the order of 100 microseconds (100*10**[-6] seconds). So there’s a vast access time gulf between DRAM and Flash that could be exploited with the right technology – enter Optane DC PM.

The only detailed info I could find on Optane DC PM access times was in a research paper (see Basic performance of Intel Optane DC PMM research paper) and it said Optane DC PM assessing times are ~350 nanoseconds, or close to right between DRAM and Flash. At the show the development team indicated that Optane DC PM support about 3GB/sec of bandwidth per module (DIMM).

There are two ways to use Optane DC PM:

  1. Memory mode – in Memory mode, the data in Optane DC PM is thrown away during a power cycle. You must use a block of DRAM as a cache or rather a virtual memory block to the Optane DC PM acting as a paging store. Data is brought into the DRAM cache when accessed using its (virtual) DRAM address and when no longer used. it gets evicted (destaged) back out to Optane DC PM. When power is cycled the data in Optane DC PM is cleared out. Optane DC PM supports AES XTS-256 bit encryption and can easily be cleared by throwing away encryption keys during a power cycle.
  2. App Direct mode – in App Direct mode, Optane DC PM is accessed directly using application APIs and its data persists across power cycles. For App Direct mode, Optane DC PM is still AES 256 encrypted but here the encryption key is maintained across power cycles but is locked on power up and you need to use a pass phrase to unlock it. In this mode, applications are responsible for flushing (L1-L2) caches to Optane to retains all data written through L1-L2 to the Optane DC PM. There’s a GitHub Persistent Memory Development Kit (PMDK) library for that supports the App Direct mode API that applications need to use.

Both modes use DDR-T, (transactional DDR4) a new memory bus protocol for Optane DC PM access. In the DDR-T protocol, access to the memory bus is requested by a CPU and is granted by an Optane DC PM DIMM. All Optane DC PM DIMMs on a system can be accessed in parrallel.

You can use RDMA to replicate (App direct?) Optane DC PM data from one system to another. In order to support Memory and App Direct mode, Optane DC PM required CPU, BIOS and (application) software changes.

Most of the Optane DC PM support and cryptology logic is implemented in hardware. Optane DC PM has an address indirection table (AIT) to support 3D XPoint wear leveling maintained in DRAM but flushed to Optane during power loss. Transfers to 3D XPoint media is in 256 byte cache lines but the memory bus operates in 64 byte cache lines, so there’s a (DRAM) buffer between media and memory bus.

Optane also supports a high availability, or up to two device failure mode. In this scenario, if one Optane DC PM DIMM fails, the system can swap another spare Optane DC PM DIMM into that address space and continue to operate. If a 2nd Optane DC PM fails then the system fails. Not sure what happens to the data on the original Optane DC PM DIMM during a failure. It seems to me data would be lost, but it could depend on its failure mode.

In Memory mode, the expected ratio between DRAM size and Optane DC PM size is should be 32GB DRAM/6TB Optane DC PM. At the TFDx event, the Optane DC PM team had some performance charts showing different DRAM cache miss rates. Intel also announced new CPU monitoring statistics to track application/workloads impacting DRAM/Optane DC PM in Memory mode and to track Optane DC PM health.

Optane DC PM usage modes are established by the BIOS. It’s flexible enough to have the Optane DC PM usage modes be defined on a region by region basis. Not exactly sure what a region is, but it could be an address range spanning MB(?) of Optane DC PM. With both modes in operation on a system, data can be moved from Memory mode Optane to App direct mode Optane or vice versa.

Intel expects that lifetime of an Optane DC PM DIMM to be from 200-370PB of data writes. Optane DC PMs have a 5 year warrantee. Given its bandwidth (3GB/sec), 200PB of data writes should last ~2 years but that’s at 100% duty cycle, writing 3GB of data, every second of every day. So, 5 years should be a reasonable guarantee using a more realistic ~40% duty cycle.

What applications use Optane DC PM

The one of interest to most people seems to be SAP HANA. According to the development team, SAP HANA could use App Direct mode for main database storage and use DRAM for its delta column store. Cassandra could also use Optane in App Direct mode in a similar fashion.

Also something like a REDIS for key-value store could use Optane DC PM to store Values and use DRAM to store Keys.

But any application could take advantage of the extra memory made available with Optane DC PM DIMMs in Memory mode today. Of course any use of Optane DC PM would require the right levels of Intel Xeon CPUs (Cascade Lake), BIOSes and motherboards.

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Interested in learning more, TFDx videos of the event are available on the website noted previously. Also these TFDx bloggers also have posts specifically on Optane DC PM.

The coolest thing since sliced bread – Optane by Matt Leib, (@MBLeib)

Intel’s crossover point: A 3D spork by Stephen Foskett (@SFoskett)

Intel answering SAP HANA’s tough questions by Keith Townsend (@CTOAdvisor)

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