New Memory Category: 3D XPoint

On July 28th, IM Flash Technologies, LLC revealed they had managed to create a new type of memory. The joint venture between Intel and Micron, formed in 2006, has been working together for nearly a decade and has crafted some pretty great things, notably their own brand of 3D NAND in addition to this new type of memory.

The new memory is called 3D XPoint (pronounced 3D cross-point), and is already in production at their facility in Lehi, Utah. Intel and Micron boast the new technology is a fast, durable, non-volatile memory that is up to 1000x faster than NAND and is the first new memory category in 26 years.

How Does it Work?

Utilizing new materials to form the technology, 3D XPoint functions physically differently than 3D NAND. The structure looks similar, but that’s only because a skyscraper-like lattice is the densest configuration for these three-dimensional memory technologies.

We know 3D NAND works basically the same as 2D NAND, using the trapping of electrons to store information.

3D XPoint is a departure from using electrons, since it stores information without transistors. Using new materials means they are able to use new techniques as a means of storing information. Although they have been very vague on the specifics, we know it functions like a switch using these varying voltages, so it works like any other flash memory in that regard. Over time, we’ll certainly learn more about how it works and I’m excited to hear how the switch works.

It’s true that on a fundamental level, NAND changes transistor states using varying voltages as well, however 3D XPoint doesn’t use floating gates or any of the NAND technologies to store information, thus it’s a departure from conventional non-volatile flash memory storage.

Something I find quite interesting about 3D XPoint is that memory cells sit at the intersection of word and bit lines, so they can all be addressed individually. This has tremendous ramifications for how quickly and efficiently read/write on the memory is, since you can now read and write in small sizes rather than using memory blocks.

As the author of this article, I’m not one of the data recovery experts for Gillware so I can’t attest as to any potential difficulties for recovery. In any case, we will find out eventually once these drives are commercially widespread.

Why Does this Matter?

skyrim, textures
We can expect more realistic textures and landscapes, such as this mod for Skyrim. Photo Credit: Delyth Angharad

3D XPoint can be thought of as a new memory category that sits somewhere between NAND and DRAM. Similar to NAND, it’s a high density, non-volatile memory. Similar to DRAM, it’s extremely fast. It isn’t quite as fast as DRAM and isn’t quite as cheap as NAND, so we can’t expect 3D XPoint to replace either of them anytime soon.

Regardless, we can expect to see 3D XPoint utilized in plenty of ways. Some examples Micron CEO Mark Durcan provided are security uses, such as high fidelity pattern recognition, medical uses such as better genomic sequencing, and gaming uses such as larger digital spaces in video games without load times and more detailed and immersive gaming experiences.

There are also some ways it can help data centers since it’s a high density, fast, non-volatile memory. Large data sets can be transferred faster and information is still secure from power-loss since it’s non-volatile.

When Can We Use It and How Expensive is It?

Usually, announcements like this are for technologies that won’t go to market for another three or four years. As I mentioned earlier, 3D XPoint is already in production in their facility in Lehi, Utah and we should expect to see it available in 2016.

The first round of wafers are 128Gb per die across two stacked memory layers. We can expect this to improve in the coming years.

In terms of cost, it will likely be somewhere between NAND and DRAM. Not prohibitively expensive like DRAM, but not incredibly cheap like SSDs have become over the last few years.

As with most new technologies, I recommend being a savvy consumer by waiting to purchase anything with 3D XPoint technology until we see how useful it really is or if there are problems it can cause.

For example, how many times has someone purchased a new technology for their gaming computer, only to find that the rest of the components in their computer aren’t good enough to even fully utilize that new technology? In that vein, people should relax, do their research, and read some of the reviews for 3D XPoint after launch in 2016 to get a grasp on it.

Overall, I’m still optimistic and am excited to see this new memory category come to the market next year.