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This new 3D XPoint memory could last forever

Lucas Mearian | July 31, 2015
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.

Not completely unique

While it may be touted as such, 3D XPoint (cross point) technology is not entirely new. The premise of cross-point architectures is that it removes the need for bit-storing transistors and instead uses a latticework of wires that use electrical resistance to signify a 1 or a 0.

Cross-point architectures that use resistive random-access memory (ReRAM or RRAM) are based on the memory resistor concept, also called Memristor as far back as 1971. Resistive memories have been nearing production for the past couple of years.

Instead of the transistors used by traditional NAND flash to indicate bits of data, XPoint and ReRAM cells change their physical properties to either have a high or low electrical resistance. When in a high resistance state, meaning electricity cannot easily pass through, the cell represents a 0; when in a low resistance state, it represents a 1.

One class of cross-point memory is phase-change memory (PCM), which has been in development for years.

In 2008, for example, Toshiba and SanDisk announced they were working on a "cross point" memory RAM chip. In 2013, the two companies demonstrated their cross point memory at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference.

In 2011, IBM announced it had produced PCM chips that could store 100 times the amount of data NAND flash could while also having five million erase-write cycles.

Even Intel and partner Numonyx announced their own PCM breakthrough in 2009.

In 2013, start-up Crossbar introduced a postage stamp-sized ReRAM prototype that it said could store 1TB of data; the company expected to go into large-scale production this year.

"It's some sort of phase-change mechanism. They told me it's not phase-change memory, but every one else says it's phase-change memory. It may involve some sort of phase-change mechanism," said Gregory Wong, an analyst with Forward Insights.

What's different?

So what's different about 3D XPoint? The companies said they invented "unique material compounds" and a unique cross-point architecture that is 10 times denser than conventional memory and is able to scale in ways PCM cannot.

Additionally, XPoint's memory cells are written to or read by varying the amount of voltage sent to each "selector," meaning if the voltage is high or low, it's a 1 or 0, respectively.

"This eliminates the need for transistors, increasing capacity and reducing cost," Micron said in its marketing material.

Intel and Micron aren't yet talking about the materials they're using to create the new memory.

"The companies carefully skirted such questions. They were intentionally unclear about what it is," Handy said.

Wong said Intel and Micron appear to be about two years ahead of other memory makers in the development of cross-point memory.


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