Intel and Micron Technology have developed an entirely new memory technology that blurs the boundaries between RAM and storage, offering high-density, non-volatile storage of data with access speeds closer to that of main memory.
The 3D XPoint (3D cross-point) technology is claimed to be 1,000 times faster than the Nand flash used in current solid state drives, while offering densities up to 10 times that of the DRAM used to make computer memory chips.
The new technology, jointly developed by Intel and Micron, is in production now, and the first 128Gbit chips are due to appear in products in 2016. The companies declined to say exactly what products these will be, or whether they will be storage or memory.
Rob Crooke, senior vice president of Intel's Non-Volatile Memory Solutions Group, said that the two firms had been working on 3D XPoint for some time, and that it is an entirely new technology that differs from flash and existing RAM.
"It's fundamentally different from Nand and traditional memory technology, in both physics and the attributes it brings in speed, capacity and density. It's the first time an entirely new class of memory technology has been brought to market for long time," he said.
The key ingredient of 3D XPoint is a special material that changes from high to low electrical resistance in order to store a single bit of data.
Intel and Micron are keeping this material a closely guarded secret and declining to say exactly what it is composed of and how it changes resistance, other than stating that it is not a type of phase-change memory and does not store data by trapping electrons, as in a flash memory cell.
This material enables a 3D XPoint memory to be very simple in structure. Instead of being constructed from several transistors, each cell is a single pillar of the mystery material, sandwiched between row and column access lines to make a grid (above).
This enables individual cells to be accessed very quickly - within tens of nanoseconds - and the structure can be stacked in three dimensions to scale up to high densities, according to Intel and Micron.
These properties mean that 3D XPoint can be accessed like a RAM chip, but is non-volatile like a flash drive and can scale up to store larger volumes of data in a single chip than is possible with memory technologies like DRAM.
"This truly is revolutionary and very exciting, because it brings not only a new set of characteristics but will enable a new class of applications and compute architectures and a rethink of what is possible," said Micron chief executive Mark Durcan.
Citing just a few examples, Durcan said that 3D XPoint technology could be used to enable massive in-memory databases and applications where a rapid recovery time is required after a power failure.
The technology does not require power to keep its contents, and can pick up where it left off as soon as power is restored after a failure.
Meanwhile, Greg Matson, Intel's director of strategic planning and marketing for data centre SSD products, said that 3D XPoint is "1,000 times faster than Nand flash, but not quite as fast as DRAM", while the cost of the chips is "more than Nand, but less than DRAM".
What this means is that the first products using the new technology are likely to be very high-performance storage devices, such as Non-Volatile Memory Express drives that attach directly to the PCI Express bus inside a computer for low-latency connectivity to the host processor.
Matson said that Intel and Micron will continue to manufacture Nand flash products such as the 3D Nand chips unveiled earlier this year, alongside 3D XPoint, which makes sense if the technology is currently more costly than flash.
In the future, however, technology such as 3D XPoint looks set to blur the distinction between conventional memory and storage, but this would call for a rethink of the way many applications work.
Current operating systems and applications have been architected to work within the constraints of a very small working memory backed by a storage pool that is much larger, but also much slower to access.
Databases, for example, are typically designed to ensure that a transaction has been securely and reliably committed to disk before it can be regarded as successfully completed.
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