Intel and Micron 3D XPoint Memory Kicks Off A Revolution

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.