Intel has disclosed plans for the 3D XPoint memory technology announced recently, saying that it will bring it to market first in a new line of solid state drives (SSDs) under the Optane brand name.
Announced at the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) in San Francisco, the Optane brand will come to market as a new line of high-endurance, high-performance Intel SSDs beginning in 2016.
However, Intel also said that the new memory technology will be used to create future lines of dual in-line memory modules (Dimms) designed for Intel's next-generation data centre platforms.
Intel chief executive Brian Krzanich announced the new Optane brand during his keynote speech at IDF, saying that Optane SSDs will ship in products ranging from servers to low-power laptops from as early as next year, before eventually finding their way into systems as DIMMs as well.
The 3D XPoint (3D cross-point) technology was jointly unveiled by Intel and partner Micron at the end of July. It is claimed to be an entirely new technology that offers performance many times faster than the Nand flash currently used to make SSDs, while enabling higher densities than the DRAM used to make memory chips.
The "secret sauce" in 3D XPoint technology is a mystery material that can store bits of data by changing between high and low electrical resistance. Intel and Micron have declined to give details of the material, save denying that it is a kind of phase-change technology.
However, because each memory cell is made up of a single pillar of the material, rather than the multiple transistors required for Nand flash, it can be made into denser grid arrays.
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.
As predicted by V3 at the time, the first products using the new technology will be high-performance storage devices, and quite likely to be Non-Volatile Memory Express drives that attach directly to the PCI Express bus inside a computer for low-latency connectivity to the host processor.
3D XPoint technology cannot currently match the speed of DRAM, but Intel's announcement that it will use it for future DIMM products means that the firm either believes it can ramp the speed up to a point where it can be used for system memory, or that it aims to use it as a low-latency accelerator for storage, as some vendors have done by putting flash memory onto Dimms.
If Intel can get 3D XPoint to match the speed of DRAM, this could revolutionise computing, since main memory would become non-volatile, opening up all sorts of possibilities for in-memory processing for applications like databases.
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