Intel, Micron claim a new class of memory between flash and DRAM

3D XPoint is 1,000 times faster than flash and 10 times more dense than DRAM, they say

To fill computers' voracious appetite for data, Intel and Micron say they've developed the first new kind of memory since NAND flash was introduced in 1989.

The new technology, 3D XPoint, is a form of non-volatile memory that's as much as 1,000 times faster than NAND flash, the companies say. Processors will need access that fast to crunch the data sets for things like 8K gaming, financial fraud detection and real-time disease tracking, according to Intel and Micron. 3D XPoint is due to ship in sample quantities later this year and arrive in products next year.

The companies developed 3D XPoint to complement DRAM and NAND. Far faster than NAND but still an order of magnitude slower than DRAM, it also has a cost per bit that falls in between the two established technologies, said Scott DeBoer, vice president of research & development at Micron. The speed comes in part from the fact that 3D XPoint reads and writes data in very small sizes, similar to DRAM, but it's 10 times as dense as DRAM, DeBoer said.

3D XPoint could fit in anywhere rapid access to large amounts of data is required, including as a high-speed cache. It could deliver benefits including high-fidelity pattern recognition, faster genomics processing, and more responsive games with larger worlds and more textures, they said.

"This is truly a breakthrough kind of technology the industry has been looking for for a while," analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy said in an email interview. It will take the place of SSDs in some PCs and servers, especially for big data deployments, and in time could change the way developers architect applications and operating systems, he said.

Intel and Micron have been working on 3D XPoint together since 2012, though some of their scientists have been involved in the quest much longer, DeBoer said. The two companies teamed up in order to make it a reality sooner. It's the faster flash that the industry has been looking for, the companies say. It also has 1,000 times the endurance of NAND, meaning it's possible to read and write data with it many more times, they say.

To achieve those goals, the companies developed a new architecture called a cross point array, which they describe as a three-dimensional checkerboard. Each cell is connected to metal lines at the top and bottom that are perpendicular to each other and allow for quick connections. The cell itself consists of a switch and the memory element, with no need for a transistor. It stores data not by moving electrons, as NAND does, but by changing the resistance of the material itself, which the companies won't identify.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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