If being a processor chip was a human job, it would be one of the most boring. That’s because modern processors spend a lot of their time doing not much of anything, as they wait for the slower memory chips to catch up with them. But that may change if Intel Corporation and Micron Technology’s new 3D XPoint (3D Crosspoint) technology pans out. Described by the makers as a “major breakthrough in memory process technology,” it’s the first new class of non-volatile memory to be released since 1989 and is reportedly 1,000 times faster than NAND flash memory.
The digital revolution has produced an explosion of data that is unprecedented in history. According to IDC (PDF), 4.4 zettabytes of digital data were created in 2013 alone and it’s estimated that this will grow to 44 zettabytes by 2020. And we’re not talking about static archives. Many new applications, such as face and speech recognition, rely on fast access to an ever-increasing database in order to carry out their functions. This means society not only needs a way of storing data, but also of rapidly accessing and processing it.
Unfortunately, memory technologies have lagged behind in recent years. Modern processor chips have sped up much more than the computer’s memory, so processors spend a lot of time waiting on the memory. This requires computer engineers to come up with various caching solutions, but it still means that the processor’s potential is hampered like a relay race team with one very slow runner. In addition, existing memory technologies have had to deal in trade-offs of cost, power, and performance.
In terms of memory chips, the choice has been mainly between DRAM, which was invented in 1966, and NAND flash memory, which came out in 1989. DRAM has the advantage of being extremely fast, but it’s also volatile, expensive, and its capacity doesn’t double with any speed compared to other digital components. On the other hand, NAND is inexpensive, non-volatile, is 1,300 times faster than hard drives, but it’s 1,500 times slower than DRAM.On Tuesday, Intel and Micron took the wraps off their new 3D XPoint technology, which is a new non-volatile memory designed for fast access to large sets of data by combining the density, power, and low cost of other available technologies. According to Intel, 3D XPoint is up to 1,000 times faster than NAND, yet has 1,000 times greater endurance, and is 10 times denser, so an individual memory wafer can store 128Gb of data while operating on the order of nanoseconds.
Intel says that the key to this jump in performance while dropping the cost is the 3D XPoint’s cross-point architecture. In this, the two-layer basic material of the wafer is cut into individual units, consisting of submicroscopic memory cells at the bottom and topped with a selector. Unlike DRAM, which needs a transistor on each memory cell, no transistors are required. The individual cells are connected by perpendicular wires. These allow individual memory cells to be addressed by powering a particular pair of wires top and bottom, so they intersect at the desired cell. Reading and writing are achieved by varying the voltage. In addition, this arrangement allows the cells to stack, allowing for much greater density of eight to 10 times that of DRAM. It also produces a latency in tens of nanoseconds instead of DRAM’s tens of microseconds.The makers admit that 3D XPoint isn’t quite as fast as DRAM, but it’s a thousand times faster than NAND and is much less expensive than DRAM. Intel compares this to speeding up a airplane so that a 12-hour flight from San Francisco to Beijing could be done in 43 seconds. The memory also endure tens of millions of write cycles, as opposed to NAND lasting through tens of thousands. This endurance combined with non-volatility means that computer system memory and storage can be combined on a single wafer.
The 3D XPoint is currently in production at Intel Micron Flash Technologies, and the makers say that the technology will have a wide range of applications including machine learning, immersive 8K gaming, fraud detection, genetic analysis, disease tracking, and social media.
“For decades, the industry has searched for ways to reduce the lag time between the processor and data to allow much faster analysis,” says Rob Crooke, senior vice president and general manager of Intel’s Non-Volatile Memory Solutions Group. “This new class of non-volatile memory achieves this goal and brings game-changing performance to memory and storage solutions.”
The video below outlines the 3D XPoint technology.