Introduction, Specifications, and Pricing
Samsung's Z-NAND SSDs emerged in the channel under the 983 ZET name. The new series sports lower specifications than the SZ985 SSDs that shipped directly to data center customers a year prior. The channel products enjoy wider availability nonetheless and bring the power to Z-NAND to more system administrators for less than other latency-optimized products shipping today.
Samsung's other Z-NAND SSD shook the ground below Intel's feet, and everyone else sitting in the auditorium, at Flash Memory Summit. In a room full of flash enthusiasts, Samsung announced an Optane competitor using mystery Z-NAND. A year later, the SZ985 specifications emerged. The series would ship in several capacities up to 3.2TB with 3,200 MB/s sequential read and 3,000 MB/s sequential write speeds. The random performance tipped the scales at 750,000 IOPS read and 170,000 IOPS write, but the real head spinner came from the massive 30 drive writes per day (DWPD) rating.
Samsung optimized the 983 ZET further to appeal to a broader range of applications. The sequential read performance increased 200 MB/s and delivers more user capacity in similar sizes. The 983 ZET ships in a 480GB model, a capacity class not offered in the SZ985 series. The starting capacity for the SZ985 is 800GB and the largest 983 ZET is 960GB. The increase in user capacity does decrease random write performance under steady-state conditions to 75,000 IOPS and shrinks the DWPD rating by a third.
At the time of writing Samsung only announced the 983 ZET channel Z-NAND SSDs in two capacities, 480GB and 960GB. The drives use less overprovisioning compared to the limited release SZ985, and that changes some of the performance and endurance characteristics.
The performance is nearly identical between the 480GB and 960GB drives. Both sport 3,400 MB/s sequential read and 3,000 MB/s sequential write numbers. Random reads for both capacities is 750,000 IOPS. Random write performance differs slightly with the 960GB rated at 75,000 IOPS and the 480GB at 60,000 IOPS. To elevate any confusion, Samsung rates datacenter products with steady-state performance and not fresh out of box numbers like consumer products.
At the heart of the 983 ZET is a Samsung Phoenix 8-channel controller. The Phoenix appears in a number of Samsung's products including the consumer 970 series and datacenter 983 DCT.
What makes the ZET series stand out is Samsung's 48-layer SLC memory. The drive doesn't use massive DRAM as some suggested during the initial release coverage. The older 48L memory uses a 64Gbit die size, far smaller than the modern 512Gbit and even 1Tbit in use today for consumer products. The smaller size can erase and program faster than the larger pages in more modern flash optimized for capacity more than performance.
Pricing, Warranty, and Endurance
The 983 ZET was surprisingly easy to find for a channel product. We usually check CDW first with these products and that was a homerun for both availability and the best price. The 480GB model sells at CDW for $999.99 and that doubles for the 960GB model. We also found the 983 ZET drives at other outlets like Amazon, for a little more than CDW.
Both capacities carry a five-year warranty from Samsung. The endurance for this series is superior to most datacenter SSDs using flash memory. The 960GB model covers up to 10 drive writes per day (DWPD). That drops slightly for the 480GB model, to 8.5 DWPD.
Accessories and Software
Samsung's Datacenter (DC) Toolkit and a dedicated enterprise version of Magician (both command line) works with the company's enterprise and data center products.
The 983 ZET includes only one accessory in the package, a half-height back plate.
A Closer Look
The 983 ZET cards ship in a half-height half-length form factor. Samsung includes both half and full width back brackets in the channel packaging.
The card itself uses functional passive cooling on both sides of the board. The 960GB model only populates half of the available flash pads so it should be easy for Samsung to double the capacity on demand if the controller can handle the additional capacity.
Synthetic Performance Testing
The sole comparison product to the Samsung 983 ZET comes from its most obvious competitor, the Intel SSD DC P4800X Optane SSD. The DC P4800X differs slightly from the consumer 900P/905P. The datacenter Optane drives support System Management Bus (SMBus), a feature disabled on the consumer drives.
Sequential Read Performance
The two Samsung 983 ZET SDDs deliver stronger sequential read performance at most queue depths compared to the Intel Optane SSD. The Optane drive does take a slight lead at queue depth (QD) 2 but trails the ZET drives in other queue depths.
Sequential Write Performance
ZNAND is still flash technology so the write performance drops off under steady-state conditions. Optane uses 3D XPoint, a phase change technology, and doesn't suffer from steady-state performance roll-off.
The ZET SSDs still outperform other flash-based data center SSDs we've tested in sequential writes in steady-state but trails the DC P4800X.
Sequential Mixed Workload Performance
The mixed workload tests show the two series much closer in performance. These are closer to real-world sequential workload conditions for these products, but most companies deploy these products for random workloads.
Random Read Performance
Optane memory shows stronger random read performance at queue depths 1 to 16 but peak random read performance shows both technologies on par with each other. Our enterprise server doesn't reach the full 750,000 random read IOPS claimed by Samsung for this series, but we have seen performance as high as 650,000 IOPS with the latest Memblaze enterprise SSD using a PCIe 3.0 x8 interface.
Random Write Performance
The largest performance difference between the ZET and Optane series products come in the random data write category. This is also one of the few tests where the 480GB 983 ZET trails the larger 960GB model. Both Z-NAND SSDs trail Optane technology products in random writes by large margin at high queue depths.
Random Mixed Workload Performance
The strong random write performance is too much to overcome in random mixed workloads. The 983 ZET SSDs show strong performance, but will not be able to close the performance gap with any amount of data writes in the workload.
Workload Performance Testing
The products we're testing today fit a special slice of the enterprise market where the workload requires high transaction rates at very high queue depths. Busy database and OLTP servers are more common for these workloads, but high-frequency trading also falls into this category.
The two ZET drives scale well under this workload with the larger model showing a slight advantage thanks to its higher random write speed.
The drives show storage performance up to the point where increased latency compounds and reduces the transaction rate.
The Online Transaction Processing (OLTP) test is similar to the database test but uses larger data block sizes for the high transaction rate workload.
It would be difficult to recommend the products we tested today for email servers, but we like to use a standard set of tests that allows our readers to compare all products against the same workloads.
The archival test is by far the most brutal in the workload series. This test uses several block sizes with both sequential and random access. The access specification (workload) comes from Dell's 2016-updated storage test suite used by the company for internal testing.
Even with the lowest latency NVMe SSDs shipping today, the preconditioning shows varied results with a lot of inconsistency.
Samsung doesn't have an "Optane Killer" with the 983 ZET products, but that's not what the company needs to provide customers. When companies buy servers at scale, they purchase packages and not individual components. The packages include the hardware, software, and sometimes even the setup/configuration. The 983 ZET Z-NAND SSD is just another piece in the puzzle.
When we look at the puzzle, we see a strong lineup. The ZET SSDs work with other Samsung products like the 983 DCT, 883 DCT, and 860 DCT. There are very few instances when a company would deploy servers full of 983 ZET SSDs. I suspect most servers would use a software-defined storage system with the 983 ZET sitting at the top of the pyramid with 883 DCT SATA SSDs (2.5", 7mm) on the downward slope for data with less frequent access.
When you look at the 983 ZET in that context, it becomes clear that Samsung didn't need a one-to-one Optane competitor, it just needed a lower latency product to fill the gap between system memory and flash. That's where the majority of sales will come from.
The 983 ZET is a channel product also, and this is where the series has to compete directly with the Intel Optane DC P4800X. These are one-off or smaller volume systems built by a system administrator for smaller businesses. These customers will shop at the component level with barebones servers from Supermicro, for example. The server comes with the chassis, motherboard, and power supply. Components like CPUs, system memory, and storage are optional.
Samsung has a price advantage in this arena with 983 ZET. The 480GB drive sells for $999.99 at CDW, and that doubles to $1999.99 for the 960GB model. The 375GB Intel DC P4800X that we included in the test today sells for $1214.99, also at CDW, and moves to $2679.99 for the 750GB model.
The Intel DC P4800X does have a form factor advantage. The Optane drives ship in both add-in card and 2.5" (15mm) form factors. We learned at Flash Memory Summit last year the add-in card form factor is less attractive to customers with the emergence of "NF1 / NGSFF" style SSDs designed for 1U pizza box servers.
The Bottom Line: The 983 ZET isn't the perfect answer to Intel's Optane class products but it's a great start to fill the gap between DRAM and 3-bit per cell flash.
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