Intel and Micron say they've developed a new class of memory technology, but there's more talk about all of the things 3D XPoint memory might be able to do, and little detail of what it actually is. Speculation is inevitable.
I could do with a little less flash in my memory announcements.
Yesterday, Intel and Micron announced what they claimed was a new class of memory, and that’s not something that happens very often. In fact, company execs are saying their jointly developed 3D XPoint technology is the first new class of memory since the introduction of NAND flash 25 years ago, and that it offers non-volatile memory speeds up to 1,000 times faster while being eight to 10 times denser than DRAM.
But it’s not clear just what 3D XPoint memory is. As reported by Peter Clarke, Intel and Micron execs disclosed few details about the material system or switching mechanism, only saying that the switching mechanism is via changes in resistance of the bulk material and that the companies had "invented unique material compounds" to create the 3D XPoint memory.
Intel and Micron spent just as much time talking about the explosion of connected devices and digital services is generating massive amounts of new data, and that to make this data useful, it must be stored and analyzed very quickly.
When has there not been an explosion of data? I have been writing about technology for nearly two decades now, and there’s always been too much data. All that’s changed is the discussion of where and how it’s going be stored. The SAN vs. NAS debate has given way to hard disk vs. SSD and how much goes in the cloud.
Micron and Intel also talked about how 3D XPoint memory addresses the challenge of the reducing time it takes the processor to reach data on long-term storage by allowing for quick access to enormous data sets, as well the benefits for gamers who want slower loading times. But this goal is by no means a new one either.
While there is always some level of hyperbole in the semiconductor industry — any SSD announcement nowadays is all about how many writes per day it can handle — the joint announcement from Intel and Micron sounds more like the unveiling of a consumer product, like a new smartphone. There was more emphasis on the wow factor, and not enough detail on how the new memory actually works, which is what those who follow the memory industry truly want.
Earlier this year, an article I wrote on Samsung’s new ePOP was put under the microscope by several readers who were looking for more substance. While I did follow up with Samsung to try flesh out how the technology achieved what it claimed, the company wouldn’t divulge how it prevented NAND memory from getting hotter than the temperature range that can cause a malfunction.
Ultimately, the unwillingness of Intel and Micron to lift the hood on this new memory technology makes it ripe for speculation. Is it perhaps a resistive RAM (ReRAM) with an in-built select diode allowing for a dense device structure? EE Times commenters are already trying to parse what little information has been revealed. Perhaps a twist on phase change memory (PCM)? (For those of you looking for deep dive into a memory technology, be sure to check out Ron Neale’s latest blog on IBM’s novel approach to PCM. It’s part one of two, with the second half set to go online at the end of the week).
Jim Handy, principal analyst with Objective Analysis, was on-site for the announcement, and as a result, had access to a second question and answer session with Intel and Micron technology staff. When he asked what memory technology 3D XPoint was closest to, he was told there was no technology as mature as this one. “They are not lifting the covers on this."
Intel and Micron are sticking to the narrative that 3D Xpoint is like nothing that has been seen before, said Handy. “Based on what little they have disclosed, we are going to have to take their word for it."
Despite the secrecy, Handy said 3D Xpoint memory is worth noting, but not groundbreaking enough to wake people up in the middle of the night. Alternative memory technologies are generally seeking to replace DRAM or NAND flash, whereas Intel and Micron say their new memory occupies its own spot, and does not change Micron’s 3D NAND roadmap. “There's certainly a place for it in the memory hierarchy," said Handy.
But so what if 3D Xpoint is really a bulk switching ReRAM or variation of PCM? Figuring a new way to use an existing technology is just as innovative as coming up with a new one, and it would be more interesting to hear about how ReRAM or PCM have been re-engineered to do what Intel and Micron say 3D Xpoint will do rather than just allude to some secret ingredients and processes that are entirely new.
Without further details from Intel or Micron, there’s likely to be some skepticism until products based on 3D Xpoint are actually hitting the market, and frequent assumptions that it is just a rift on an existing memory technology until it’s shown otherwise.
—Gary Hilson covers memory and flash technologies for EE Times and is the editor of Memory Designline.