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What 3D XPoint says about the PC of the future

Gordon Mah Ung | July 30, 2015
One day, if Intel and Micron's new 3D XPoint memory plays out the way I expect it to, you'll never have to wait for another game or app to launch ever again, because they'll always be "loaded."

3d xpoint die
Credit: Intel/ Micron

One day, if Intel and Micron's new 3D XPoint memory plays out the way I expect it to, you'll never have to wait for another game or app to launch ever again, because they'll always be "loaded."

That future hinges on a lot of changes to the PC itself, but the first building block was announced Tuesday morning in San Francisco by Intel and Micron, in a technology called 3D XPoint.

Let's not get too caught up right now in the technical details of how this 3D stacked memory works. It's a 20nm process built in a Utah fab jointly owned by Micron and Intel, a fab that took 10 years and untold riches to make. It's complicated stuff. Just think about what 3D XPoint could do to our computing experience as a whole.

In today's desktop, laptop, tablet or phone, you have main memory or RAM that's counted in megabytes, and storage that's typically counted in gigabytes or even terabytes. RAM is immensely fast, but once you cut power to it, it forgets everything. Your hard drive or SSD stores gigabytes of documents, pictures and movies when off, but it's many magnitudes slower than RAM.

3D XPoint sits in between those existing technologies. Per Intel and Micron, it's 1,000 times faster than an SSD and 10 times denser than DRAM. It's also non-volatile, which means there's no need to power it.

Because system RAM is relatively low-capacity compared to an SSD or hard drive, only the data you need is loaded into RAM before you can use it.

With 3D XPoint's DRAM-like speeds, there's potential for a PC of tomorrow with 1TB of 3D XPoint to have a computing experience as though everything on your SSD or hard drive was loaded into main system memory all the time, without a power cost.

Think about the ramifications of that for a second. You'll never have to wait for anything on your PC, laptop or tablet to open. The CPU won't have to load the picture from the SSD or hard drive. With 3D XPoint it's already there, in a state as though you had it open already.

Remember, 3D XPoint isn't a new NAND technology or RAM. It's something completely new. If a system has 3D XPoint as its "main memory," everything is just "open all the time." Intel and Micron execs even intimated that such a configuration, without RAM, was possible one day.

Much of that possibility hinges on the actual performance of 3D XPoint. Intel and Micron didn't get into specifics beyond the "1,000X" faster switching speed, but they did say 3D XPoint would offer "10X" the performance of an NVMe PCIe device. You don't have to look far to find that NVMe PCIe device either: The only one I know of today is Intel's excellent 750 series SSD, which hits in excess of 2.5GB of read speed on some loads. If that is the drive both companies are using as a reference, it's pretty easy to see that they expect 3D XPoint drives/devices to reach beyond 20GBps of read and write speed.

 

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