The never-ending quest to satisfy Moore’s Law means that we’re always looking for ways to making computers faster and cheaper. Primarily this focuses on the brain of the computer, the Central Processing Unit (CPU), which in most modern computers is now how to transistors numbering in the billions. All the other components haven’t been resting on their laurels however as shown by the radical improvement in speeds from things like Solid State Drives (SSDs), high-speed interconnects and graphics cards that are just as jam-packed with transistors as any CPU is. One aspect that’s been relatively stagnant however has been RAM which, whilst increasing in speed and density, has only seen iterative improvements since the introduction of the first Double Data Rate (DDR). Today Intel and Micron have announced 3D Xpoint, a new technology that sits somewhere between DRAM and NAND in terms of speed.
Details on the underlying technology are a little scant at the moment however what we do know is that instead of storing information by trapping electrons, like all memory currently does, 3D Xpoint (pronounced cross point) instead stores bits via a change in resistance of the memory material. If you’re like me you’d probably think that this was some kind of phase change memory however Intel has stated that it’s not. What they have told us is that the technology uses a lattice structure which doesn’t require transistors to read and write cells, allowing them to dramatically increase the density, up to 128GB per die. This also comes with the added benefit of being much faster than current NAND technologies that power SSDs although slightly slower than current DRAM, albeit with the added advantage of being non-volatile.
Unlike most new memory technologies which often purport to be the replacements for one type of memory or another Intel and Micron are position 3D Xpoint as an addition to the current architecture. Essentially your computer has several types of memory, all of which are used for a specific purpose. There’s memory directly on the CPU which is incredibly fast but very expensive, so there’s only a small amount. The second type is the RAM which is still fast but can be had in greater amounts. The last is your long term storage, either in the form of spinning rust hard drives or a SSD. 3D Xpoint would sit in between the last two, providing a kind of high speed cache that could hold onto often used data that’s then persisted onto disk. Funnily enough the idea isn’t that novel, things like the XboxOne use a similar architecture, so there’s every chance that it might end up happening.
The reason why this is exciting is because Intel and Micron are already going into production with these new chips, opening up the possibility of a commercial product hitting our shelves in the very near future. Whilst integrating it in the way that they’ve stated in the press release would take much longer, due to the change in architecture, there’s a lot of potential for a new breed of SSD drives to be based on this technology. They might be an order of magnitude more expensive than current SSDs however there are applications where you can’t have too much speed and for those 3D Xpoint could be a welcome addition to their storage stack.
Considering the numerous technological announcements we’ve seen from other large vendors that haven’t amounted to much it’s refreshing to see something that could be hitting the market in short order. Whilst Intel and Micron are still being mum on the details I’m sure that the next few months will see more information make its way to us, hopefully closely followed by demonstrator products. I’m very interested to see what kind of tech is powering the underlying cells as a non-phase change, resistance based memory is something that would be truly novel and, once production hits at-scale levels, could fuel another revolution akin to the one we saw with SSDs all those years ago. Needless to say I’m definitely excited to see where this is heading and I hope Intel and Micron keep us in the loop with the new developments.