Intel experiments with 3D Xpoint as it ships out SSDs to testers

The company is still looking for a good fit for its 3D Xpoint memory and storage technology

Intel's groundbreaking 3D Xpoint technology is poised to shake up computer memory and storage with its blazing fast speed and high capacity, but the chipmaker is still trying to figure out the best fits for the technology.

3D Xpoint, developed by Intel and Micron, is a new class of memory and storage that can be faster, denser, and more durable than conventional DRAM and flash storage.

Intel claims 3D Xpoint is 10 times denser than memory, and the company has shown it to be up to 10 times faster than conventional SSDs.

New 3D Xpoint SSDs -- which will be branded Optane -- will ship by the end of this year. The 3D Xpoint memory DIMMs will come next year, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said during an earnings call this week.

Some 3D Xpoint SSDs have already shipped to testers, mainly cloud providers, to help unwrap uses for the technology. Krzanich said. Intel is trying to figure out where multi-dimensional 3D Xpoint -- which can be memory, storage, or both when needed -- can be best used.

Intel has already figured out some good matches for 3DXpoint. The higher-capacity and faster SSDs could be attractive to gamers, with a level of disk performance that gamers crave, Krzanich said.

"You can pre-load in a cache-like environment the next level of your game so it loads almost instantly," he said.

The first SSDs will target high-end PCs like gaming rigs and business desktops. Optane SSDs will also be available for laptops and enterprise storage, Krzanich said.

Intel has said it will put 1TB of storage into a 1.5-millimeter-thick Optane drive for laptops and tablets, and up to 15TB of storage on a larger 2.5-inch drive. The SSDs will be compatible with the NVMe protocol and fit into PCI-Express slots. They should work with Windows PCs and Macs that have PCIe-compatible storage.

For enterprises, Intel is still trying to figure out how 3D Xpoint fits best with servers and racks.

"We've started shipping sample units to customers already to let them try out and learn. Those are [going] to the big cloud service providers," Krzanich said.

Facebook is collaborating with Intel on 3D Xpoint as part of its Open Compute Project. The companies are likely to make Optane compatible with Lightning, an open-source storage design.

The 3D Xpoint technology could be used in database and big data applications, which typically generate and process a lot of data. The larger the memory capacity, the faster data is processed.

"Any place where you have memory intensive and in-memory applications, the 3D Xpoint is going to be nicely configured for that," Krzanich said. "It allows you to bring large amounts of storage-like data into memory-like performance. That's the real key here."

3D Xpoint could possibly drive changes in server designs. Arrays with 3D Xpoint SSDs could also serve as both memory and storage, providing flexibility in a small space. 3D Xpoint memory DIMMs could be decoupled from servers into specialized chassis, which could provide more in-memory capacity for applications like SAP HANA.

Intel still doesn't know how big the market for 3D Xpoint is because the company is still exploring the technology's uses. But the memory DIMMs could find wide adoption and could replace volatile memory that can't retain data.

"When I think where the big volume will come from, it'll come in the DIMM form factor," Krzanich said.

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