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Intel's crazy-fast 3D XPoint Optane memory heads for DDR slots (but with a catch)

Gordon Mah Ung | Aug. 24, 2015
Surprise! Intel's 3DXPoint memory will go inside a DDR4 slot—but not everyone is happy with Intel's proprietary approach to support.

cross point image for photo capsule

It was clear from the beginning that Intel and Micron’s new 3D XPoint memory—which promises “1,000 times” the performance of today’s SSDs—would require a faster pathway into the PC.

After all, SATA, SATA Express, and even PCIe lack the sheer bandwidth to support the levels at which 3D XPoint can perform. But this week Intel officially revealed its plans for 3D XPoint memory support: It will slip into a DDR4 slot, and it’s a decision that won’t make vendors happy.

The story behind the story: When Intel and Micron introduced its jointly built memory, everything seemed rosy. But now that details of how it will be implemented are starting to trickle out, the devil’s hand is becoming apparent.

Intel’s 3D XPoint-based DIMMs are electrically and physically compatible with DDR4, and offer a four-fold increase in capacity. Intel also says the memory offers massive performance benefits without modifications to your OS or applications.

So if all that sounds good, why the grousing? The problem, it seems, is how Intel is rolling out support. While the 3D XPoint DIMM is electronically compatible and pin-compatible with DDR4, Intel’s compatibility solution is proprietary.

Rick Merritt of EETimes first chronicled the unhappy reactions to Intel’s news here. Merritt points out that despite Intel’s claim of being electrically compatible, company officials conceded an entirely new CPU and new extensions will be required to access 3D XPoint.

”The main frustration is [Intel and Micron] won’t tell us anything about the damned stuff.”—Jim McGregor 

“They’re extending the (DDR4) interface,” Jim McGregor, an analyst with Tirias Research, told PCWorld in an interview. “It’s going to be electrically and pin compatible, but the way they talk will be different.”

With the only source of the new type of memory coming from a fab jointly owned by Micron and Intel, no one’s going to be happy, McGregor said. ”If you don’t have multi-vendor support, the OEMs are going to backlash,” he said.

McGregor compared the 3D XPoint situation to what happened with Direct RDRAM: Intel tried to push a new memory type and received incredible pushback from memory makers. In that battle, Intel and Rambus created a new type of high-speed, serial memory that no one wanted. The outcry gave Intel a bloody nose, and the company actually had to do a 180-degree turn, dumping RDRAM and embracing the standard that ultimately won: DDR.

McGregor also said memory makers are vexed by a lack of transparency. 

”The main frustration is [Intel and Micron] won’t tell us anything about the damned stuff,” he said.


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