Intel Optane: The missing link to a good virtual PC or gaming solution

3D XPoint memory could complement 5G and address the critical latency problem with both cloud gaming and the Windows Virtual Desktop, both of which are ramping to market. I believe our desktop and gaming future is in the cloud and the sooner we get there the happier and safer we’ll be.

Intel Optane 3D Xpoint DIMM

[Disclosure: Intel is a client of the author.]

After a recent debrief on Intel’s 3D XPoint memory effort (aka Optane), I was again struck with the fact that this technology is selling well below potential. That’s sure to change as virtual providers of desktop and gaming platforms realize it’ll be critical to their efforts to remove latency, mostly in storage but also when a cloud customer or on-premise user needs to do the massive in-memory analysis of large data sets.

What got me thinking about this was when Dell EMC launched its DC D4800X product earlier this year and I saw the early reviews of Google’s new cloud gaming service Stadia, which has been getting bad reviews due to the unacceptable latency. This latency may be even more pronounced on competing services.

Some of this will become moot when we move to 5G, which should lower latency significantly for those connecting wirelessly or replacing their wired home modems with 5G wireless equivalents. But to make desktop cloud computing viable we need ultra-low latency – and Optane (and 3D XPoint memory) may be the missing link.

Cloud desktop benefits

On paper, moving your desktop to the cloud has several important benefits. You can more easily retain state if you have a power outage, need to change locations or change hardware. Returning to exactly where you left off and not having to worry about a local system crash destroying all or part of your work are just some of the potential advantages of working in the cloud.

On top of that, patching can occur more reliably when you’re offline, and you’d have higher resilience to malware (because protections are also run remotely, and your exposure is just in the virtual instance). You’d also be able to work on anything that will run a compliant browser opening up your options in a crisis.

You also gain economies of scale, which should reduce both software costs and services, and your hardware costs should reduce over time because less is running locally, and the focus then shifts from the processor and GPU at the desktop to the modem or ethernet card.

The market is anticipating this with Chromebook and Microsoft’s Always Connected PC efforts. By mid-next decade, we’ll have reached critical mass in terms of desktops and gaming systems in the cloud…and by the end of the decade, we’ll mostly all be operating in the cloud.

Eliminating latency

Whether you’re writing a document, playing a game or doing image editing, engineering or graphics, latency can be a deal-breaker if you want to move those activities in to the cloud.

I’ve run into this critical problem twice in my career. The first time I was in telephony, and latency highlighted a huge problem for long-distance calls. You still can get enough of a lag on a long-distance call to be problematic, but that industry largely solved the problem with shorter calls some time ago…and the annoyance of talking over each other has been massively reduced as a result.

Latency partly exists is in the network, and the focus on eliminating it started in earnest when VOIP (Voice Over IP) calling was introduced. As noted, one of the huge improvements to 5G is a significant reduction in latency over both existing wired and wireless networks. 5G will reduce the number of intermediate hops and increase the performance of the technology both on the cell site and in a wireless modem. But these changes alone likely won’t be enough.

The other place we get latency is in data access – and that means storage. System memory, which is fast enough, has two problems. It is relatively expensive, and it is volatile, which means if your project is in system memory and there is an outage, you’ll lose your work. Magnetic media, while very cheap, is also very slow. SSD, while much faster, is still substantially slower than system memory even though it is non-volatile.

3D XPoint (Intel’s Optane) was created to bridge that gap, with costs closer to SSD but performance closer to system memory. Coupled with the fact that it’s also non-volatile, it comes closest to being the best of both worlds and reducing latency to the point where it’s acceptable to users. But surprisingly few are using it. This advantage could make the Dell EMC D4800X a breakout product for those wishing to solve the latency problem for hosted desktop and gaming applications.

Latency is our new enemy and 5G will help a great deal toward eliminating it. But another far less-known product that could also help is 3D XPoint memory like Intel’s Optane.

If we had an award for the most interesting technology at scale few knew about it would likely be Optane. But it should also get the award for helping eliminate latency and helping us more quickly move to the coming cloud-centric world.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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