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Jul 31 2015

3D XPoint – the Cure for All Storage Ills?


Intel and Micron Technology are working on 3D XPoint („Crosspoint"), a new non-volatile kind of transistor-free chip which they claim will be 1,000 times faster than NAND flash and 100 times faster than NVMe SSDs, will endure a 1,000 times more write cycles, and won't cost the earth on top of it all. Sample chips with 128 GB capacity are expected for the end of the year.

Every three or four years, some hardware vendor or chip designer boasts about having achieved a breakthrough in memory technology that will unleash the true power of servers and data centers. Market observers therefore take in such reports with the proverbial grain of salt, and the same fate might have befallen Intel and Micron's latest joint announcement, if it weren't for one small detail: Both chip makers promise to ship samples to select customers by the end of 2015 – that's much bolder and far more concrete than any of the stories we heard before.

Architecturally, 3D XPoint is described as a three-dimensional, 128 GB per die two-layer structure in which each layer consists of two grids sandwiching 128 billion vertical columns (see the illustration above, courtesy of Intel). Each column is made up of a memory cell and a selector on top of each other. Below and above the columns, a horizontal grid constitutes both a static frame and the electric device to individually activate specific columns through the grid bars next to them: Varying amounts of voltage sent to each selector access the memory cells for reading or writing. This architecture defines the column-grid crosspoints as actual memory spaces. This design turns 3D XPoint into an entirely transistor-free affair, allowing for higher stacking density than can be found in conventional memory elements. Russ Meyer, head of process integration at Micron, claims that right now 3D XPoint is already 10 times denser than conventional DRAM. On the other hand, TLC-NAND flash already allows for higher stacking densities than DRAMs, so there's certainly room to grow for Intel and Micron's new technology.

Intel and Micron believe that 3D XPoint will enable a host of "new innovations [...] in applications ranging from machine learning to real-time tracking of diseases and immersive 8K gaming," aiding every device, software or service that benefits from fast access to large data sets. If 3D XPoint chips really turn out to be faster than conventional internal storage memory, hard disks and SSDs, they'd offer a perfect basis for e.g. online deduplication in storage systems, which currently need either energy-intensive capacity-limited DRAM or very expensive flash memory to perform this task. If the product samples that go out by the end of the year yield successful results, 3D XPoint mass production could start as early as next year.

While all of this sounds pretty good and optimistic, there are a few small caveats to be made. Perhaps the most important one is that so far neither Intel nor Micron has disclosed which materials will be used to build the new chips. Likewise, both firms have been reluctant to reveal details regarding manufacturing processes, form factors, or presumptive performance data. According to Micron's Meyer, all of these depend on the end products coming out of the factories and the application scenarios they'll be used in. So for now, the best we can do is to wait for the follow-up reports.

For those of you who would like to learn more about the 3D XPoint technology, our colleagues at The Register have a whole collection of articles on offer. Both Computerworld and PCWorld came up with rave reviews, whereas Timothy P. Morgan provides some in-depth analysis of the system memory market over at The Next Platform.


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