3D XPoint dies. Credit: Micron
Intel and Micron this week unveiled a new type of memory they plan to mass produce that is purportedly 1,000 times faster than NAND flash and has 1,000 times the endurance.
One thousand times the endurance would be about one million erase-write cycles, meaning the new memory would last pretty much forever.
By comparison, today's NAND flash lasts for between 3,000 and 10,000 erase-write cycles. With wear-leveling and error correction software, those cycles can be improved upon, but still don't get anywhere near 100,000 cycles.
The new product, 3D XPoint, is essentially a mass storage-class memory that, while slower, is still cheaper to produce than DRAM and vastly faster than NAND. Most importantly, it's non-volatile. So when the power goes off, the data remains intact -- just as it does with NAND flash.
"It's more expensive than NAND and cheaper than DRAM, and faster than NAND but slower than DRAM," said Jim Handy, an analyst with Objective Analysis. "This suits it well to create another layer in the memory hierarchy. That's a hard sell, though."
So pumped are the companies about 3D XPoint that they're claiming it's the first new memory category in more than 25 years. According to research analysts, Intel and Micron are not exaggerating. 3D XPoint will reside between DRAM and NAND flash, able to replace both in some instances in enterprise data centers and, eventually, consumer desktops and laptops.
While they announced that they're entering production, Micron and Intel have also left much of their product a mystery.
For example, they're not disclosing what materials are used to create the memory; there are no specifics on performance because that depends on the end product and its use; and while they expect to begin shipping samples soon, Micron and Intel don't expect to roll out products until 2016.
"So that's a puzzle," Handy said.
Russ Meyer, Micron's director of process integration, said 3D XPoint chips are in production but they're awaiting their final form factor according to what equipment manufacturers will need. The new memory is still about five to eight times slower than DRAM.
"It's not as fast as DRAM, so it's not going to replace it in the most latency-valued applications, but it's much higher density and much lower latency than NAND," he said. "If you compare how much faster SSDs are to hard drives and how much faster 3D XPoint is to conventional NAND, it's kind of the same order of improvement."
3D XPoint will have about the same storage capacity as conventional or 2D planar NAND, Meyer said, but it's about 10 times denser than DRAM. That means Intel and Micron's 3D or stacked NAND will still offer greater densities.
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