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Intel 3D XPoint memory arrives – but don’t throw out your DDR RAM or SSDs just yet

Intel and Micron cement their strategic partnership with 3D XPoint memory - a new technology that promises serious speed

Memory technology doesn’t change very quickly – we’ve been using DRAM and NAND chips in PCs and other consumer electronics for over thirty years years, after all – but Intel and Micron today announced a new one. 3D XPoint memory aims to combine the performance, power requirements, density, non-volatility and cost advantages of all available memory technologies today, in a single design that could one day replace conventional SSDs and DDR memory modules. 

The name gives you a big clue as to Intel’s design approach, with a transistor-free, cross point cell architecture creating a three-dimensional checkerboard layout that can be stacked vertically to increase density. Initially, the cells will be manufactured across two memory layers, with up to 128GB per die – around ten times the density of conventional DRAM memory. Memory cells – 128 billion in each chip – sit at intersections of the Word and Bit lines that create the checkerboard. Each one contains a single bit of data and can be addressed individually, incredibly quickly.

According to Intel, 3D XPoint memory can be up to 1,000x faster than the traditional NAND memory used in SSDs. In a real world situation, a PCI-Express-based NVMe SSD using 3D XPoint memory is around ten times faster than an otherwise identical SSD using NAND flash. Considering Intel’s own NAND-based, PCI-E 750 series SSD is already the fastest we’ve seen, that bodes incredibly well for read and write speeds.

The technology also has 1,000x the endurance – meaning the maximum read/write cycles of each cell before they fail to retain data would be magnitudes higher than the consumer SSDs available today. 3D XPoint is also non-volatile, meaning it doesn’t require an electrical charge in order to keep the data on it safe. That could potentially mean an instant wake up from sleep mode, where your entire PC is instantly restored as soon as you press the power button.

3D XPoint is the culmination of a ten year strategic partnership with Micron, with the two companies using their joint fabrication facility in Utah to produce the initial run of 3D XPoint chips. Each is aiming to have products ready for consumers in 2016. However, what shape those products will take remains unclear.

It’s without doubt an exciting announcement – just don’t expect to see a completely transformed computing landscape overnight. During the reveal, Intel was surprisingly light on technical details, refusing to be drawn into questions relating to memory architecture or even potential applications for the fledgling technology. The representative we spoke to couldn’t even reveal the exact nature of the technology, only confirming it wasn’t using an advanced form of phase-change memory – something the company has used in the past.

The company admitted it didn’t see the technology replacing DRAM any time soon, suggesting motherboards would continue to use DDR for a long time to come, and considering Intel’s hefty investment in 3D V-NAND flash it’s unlikely that will be disappearing either, so it’s unclear what the first commerical applications for it will be. However, with NAND prices plumetting and SATA-based SSDs getting cheaper every month, we’re betting a blazing fast NVMe SSD, either based on PCI-Express or the U.2 form factor that will most likely be appearing on Intel’s upcoming Skylake motherboards, can’t be more than a year or so away.

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