LAHORE, Pakistan—After years of mostly covert development, Intel’s investment in flash memory is finally showing signs of bearing fruit in 2017, a year that some observers are calling “the year of NAND flash.”
Intel CEO Brian Krzanich claims that the company's non-volatile memory business will finally be profitable by 2018.
It's worth noting that Intel announced record revenue of $866 million in the first quarter of 2017. At the same time, however, the world's largest chipmaker has vowed to raise the capex for its memory business. Intel, for instance, has been expanding the NAND flash capacity at its Fab 68 in Dalian, China.
A closer look at Intel's non-volatile memory business reveals a three-pronged strategy.
First and foremost, Intel plans to focus on differentiated products with higher ASPs, said Kevin Krewell, principal analyst at Tirias Research. Intel is also investing heavily in much smaller 3D NAND flash chips while seeking opportunities in the planar-to-3D NAND transition.
Intel is using floating-gate cells to bring significant improvements in the density of 3D NAND flash chips.
Second, as a recent EE Times story points out, Intel is moving into solid-state drive (SSD) business in a bid to provide software-defined storage for datacenter and cloud computing applications. That also allows the chipmaker to protect its NAND flash margins while meeting the surge in SSD demand for servers.
No wonder the majority Intel's flash revenues comes from the sale of its SSDs for the higher-end server market. It also lowers the reliance on NAND flash buyers.
Third, Intel is stepping up investment in 3D Xpoint, another non-volatile memory technology that promises to serve as a storage product as well as a DRAM replacement. The 3D Xpoint memory technology is said to offer vast improvements in speed and endurance when compared to NAND flash.
Intel and its 3D Xpoint technology partner Micron Technology are years ahead when it comes to a viable flash replacement. However, as Krewell puts it, Intel hasn't been very transparent with details about the 3D Xpoint technology. And that makes it hard to verify Intel's claims.
Krewell expects a gradual 3D Xpoint ramp in the near term. Intel—with a controlled supply—can match volume production of 3D Xpoint with demand and thus avoid over-supply that is intrinsically tied to the flash business.
- Majeed Ahmad is a technology writer and historian who covers semiconductors for EE Times.