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Intel, Micron Technology preview 3D XPoint memory storage

Micron Technology and Intel prepare 3D XPoint memory that approaches DRAM speed for a lower price and delivers persistent storage.

Micron Technology Inc. and Intel have previewed a new class of memory storage technology, which they claim is 1,000 times faster than NAND; 1,000 times more enduring than dynamic RAM (DRAM); and provides 10 times the storage density of existing NAND flash used in solid-state drives.

Dubbed 3D XPoint (pronounced cross point) memory, the technology was developed as a joint venture between Micron Technology and Intel. The companies have begun production for flash dies that store 128 GB across two stacked layers of flash memory. Samples are expected by the end of 2015, with shipping products based on 3D XPoint expected in 2016.

The new technology will be almost as fast as DRAM, while providing persistent storage.
The price is expected to fall between NAND and the more expensive DRAM.

The 3D XPoint memory uses a "cross-point" architecture that resembles a checkerboard. Two columns sit atop a switching mechanism made of composite material. Perpendicular wires connect 128 billion memory cells, with each cell storing a single bit of data. Rather than using transistors, reads and writes to 3D XPoint memory cells occur by varying the voltage sent to each selector. 

"It means you get to write a lot to it without worrying about endurance," said Rob Crooke, senior vice president and general manager of Intel's Non-Volatile Memory Solutions Group. "3D XPoint has 10 times more density, and, because it is nonvolatile, can be used for [persistent] storage. This is a fundamental breakthrough that many people thought was impossible."

Crooke demonstrated the memory technology with Mark Adams, president at Micron Technology, during a briefing on Tuesday for media and industry analysts.

Unlike NAND, 3D XPoint does not trap electrons in floating gates or capacitors. It uses a process known as bulk material property change to increase or decrease bit resistance. The process is in some ways similar to phase change memory.

"We're using all of the material, which enables us to get to higher scaling and smaller dimensions," Crooke said.

Greg Wong, founder and principal analyst at North York, Ont.-based flash storage consultancy Forward Insights, said the Intel/Micron technology falls between DRAM and NAND for price and performance.

"Everybody wants to do a cross-point [architecture] because it gives the most effective memory cell area and achieves the highest density. The cross-point architecture is important, but adding a second layer should help bring the [manufacturing] cost down. It won't be as fast as DRAM or as cheap as NAND, but it will fall somewhere in between," Wong said.

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