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Hardware makers unite to challenge Intel with Gen-Z spec

Agam Shah | Oct. 12, 2016
The Gen-Z architecture will pave the way for a new class of hybrid memory and storage to be installed in computers


Micron's 3D Xpoint storage will ship in SSDs branded QuantX, an example of the merger of memory and storage. Credit: Micron

After years of being offered as separate technologies, storage and memory are beginning to merge. It's already happening, for example, with 3D Xpoint, a technology from Intel and Micron that can serve as memory, storage, or both.

Now, a new consortium, called Gen-Z, is out to ease the transition to this new class of storage and memory in computers. It's creating a new specification and architecture that will make it easier to add new forms of non-volatile memory to computers.

Gen-Z will have a new connector, fabric and data transfer protocol. One goal is to create an open standard so new forms of memory can communicate with processors and accelerators in a coherent manner. Gen-Z will also work with SSDs like QuantX from Micron.

Data transfer speeds for the new specification will be tens to hundreds of gigabytes per second, much faster than the speed of the upcoming PCI-Express 4.0, which offers 32GBps. Gen-Z's data-transfer speed will be finalized by the time the specification is released at the end of this year.

The new architecture will be targeted at servers and data centers first; it's not certain whether it will come to PCs. Usually, server technologies ultimately trickle down to PCs.

Gen-Z consortium members include top server companies IBM, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Dell and Lenovo, and storage and memory vendors Samsung, Seagate, Micron, Western Digital and SK Hynix.

Sitting out of the consortium is Intel, which hasn't always played well with other hardware makers on industry standards. The chip maker has nothing to lose by joining the open organization, but seemingly wants to protect its own server technologies.

The Gen-Z architecture and technology can be used both outside and inside the server, said Robert Hormuth, chief technology officer for servers at Dell EMC.

At its highest speed, Gen-Z could be connected as a point-to-point bus in a server enclosure. It could also be used to connect servers, storage and memory arrays in a rack, Hormuth said.

In a way, Gen-Z is designed for the data centers of the future, where memory, storage, and processors will be pooled in separate boxes. Today, servers come with storage, memory and processing in one box, and that's a limitation. It will be possible to decouple them into separate boxes with Gen-Z as a connector. Larger pools of storage, memory and processing can be dedicated to each discrete box. That will help applications like SAP HANA, which relies on in-memory processing.

New forms of DRAM and flash storage replacements like MRAM (magnetoresistive RAM), RRAM (resistive RAM) and PCM (phase change memory) are under development, and Gen-Z will make it easier to add those technologies to servers.  But memory experts expect DRAM to last for up to a decade, and DDR5 is already under development.

 

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