Intel and Micron 3D XPoint Memory Kicks Off A Revolution

28 July 2015
Justin Warren

Storage industry watchers, start your engines.
Earlier today, Intel and Micron announced that they’ve cracked a way to make a new kind of storage. Partway between NAND Flash (the kind found in everything from your cellphone to expensive ‘all flash’ storage arrays) and RAM (the memory devices found in pretty much anything with a computer chip), this new type of storage is fundamentally and dramatically better than anything else we’ve seen in decades.

Yes. Decades.

To call 3D XPoint revolutionary could be misconstrued as hyperbole, so let’s walk through just why this announcement is such a big deal.

The memory you have in your computer, DRAM is very fast, but also expensive to have a lot of. It’s also volatile, which means if you lose power, you lose all the information. Imagine forgetting everything you know if someone turns off the lights.

Meanwhile, the magnetic rotating disk you have in hard-drives retains all the information stored on it if you turn off the power. It’s also much cheaper to have a lot of, but as a tradeoff, it’s much slower than RAM. Several orders of magnitude slower, in fact.

Flash was a huge hit because it’s a great compromise position between RAM and spinning-disk. It’s non-volatile, so it’s good for retaining information for longer than a few seconds, and it’s cheaper than RAM, but it’s also much faster than spinning disk. You get the best of both worlds, in many ways.

The downside to flash is that it wears out as you write to it, because of the way the physics of its construction works. A very smart guy from Sandisk named Randy once explained it to me, and it’s amazing flash works at all, to be quite honest.

We’ve already seen tremendous amounts of innovation because of flash. There’s flash in just about every kind of consumer device today: cellphones, iPods, tablets, and laptop computers. There’s also flash in enterprise infrastructure like solid-state disks, flash memory cards, and high-end storage arrays.

The enterprise storage market in particular is in the middle of an explosion of startups, in large part because of how flash became more affordable as scale economies kicked in.

This new kind of storage is going to do what NAND flash did, only it’s likely to do it much, much faster.

Firstly, we have a large market of consumers who are happy to spend a lot of money on tech gadgets like iPhones, iPods, and iPads. This large consumer base is one of the major economic drivers in bringing down the cost of flash. Widespread adoption means economies of scale start to kick in, and if there’s decent competition in the marketplace (as there is with multiple people making flash) the costs come down and flash is suddenly everywhere. So-called enterprise grade or write-intensive flash is still quite a lot more expensive than consumer grade, or read-intensive flash, but we’ve already seen the cheaper consumer style flash make it into enterprise storage devices.

Secondly, this storage is more reliable than flash. With flash, vendors use complex management electronics and over-provisioning of the physical device to keep the lifespan of the devices reasonable. 3D XPoint apparently doesn’t have this same issue of wearing out through use. Apart from raw cost savings, it also means 3D XPoint is more cost effective for the same amount of storage. For the same price, which car would you rather buy: one that lasts 3 years, or one that lasts 10 years?

And thirdly, this combination of factors means we should see the price of flash drop, because it’s not as good as this alternative. As the market shakes out, expect to see price falls across the board for all the different kinds of storage, jsut as we have with tape, spinning disk, flash, and RAM.

Knowing all this, why pour a bunch of money into a system or device dedicated to a technology, flash, that is soon to be made obsolete by something faster and more durable? The only advantage flash has right now is price and availability, and when that changes, flash will be displaced by 3D Xpoint much faster than spinning disk was/is by flash.

It’s going to be exciting to watch!

This article first appeared in here.

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