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3D XPoint's DIMM Prospects Lighten, Memory Sticks Shipping

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich announced during the company's Q4 2016 earnings call that Intel is shipping 3D XPoint memory DIMMs to data center customers.

Most new bleeding-edge technology spends its infancy in the data center and then trickles down to the consumer market--and 3D XPoint DIMMs will not be an exception. 3D XPoint's incredible performance and endurance characteristics should redefine our expectations for storage devices, but the true promise of the new technology lies in memory usage models. 3D XPoint is fast enough to use as a slower tier of memory that will slot in between DRAM and NAND.

The new technology presents significant challenges for operating system and application designers, so there will be an extended developmental period before DIMMs make their way to the consumer market. However, Intel revealed last year that it had tested a laptop with 16GB of DRAM against the same laptop with only 64MB of DRAM and 16GB of 3D XPoint in the DIMM form factor. According to Intel, the user experience was nearly identical. 3D XPoint should be significantly cheaper than DRAM, so the prospects of stuffing hideous amounts of memory into thin and light devices at a cheaper price point is alluring to OEMs. It also increases the likelihood that 3D XPoint DIMMs are headed to a computer near you.

Intel's and Micron's jointly-developed 3D XPoint persistent memory promises to serve both as storage or as memory. Intel's speedy Optane storage devices promise to offer up to 4x the endurance and 10x lower latency than NAND-based SSDs, along with a 3x increase in endurance. The Optane storage products, in both client and enterprise form, recently made the UNH-IOL (University of New Hampshire Interoperability Lab) Integrator's list, which indicates it is close to market. 

The key difference between DRAM and 3D XPoint is that the new material retains data when power is removed, which could alter the fundamental way that computers operate. Unlike storage applications, memory usage will require a significant re-architecting of the software stack to utilize fully. The industry is already preparing for the new use cases by developing standardized approaches to program for persistent memory.

We initially spotted Intel's Optane DIMMs at the Storage Visions conference in January 2015, but Intel remained curiously quiet about the DIMMs as it embarked on a traveling roadshow of demonstrations for storage-focused Optane 3D XPoint products. The wall of silence led to rampant speculation that Intel was having issues hammering the new material into the required endurance and thermal requirements for DIMM usage.

Meanwhile, Intel's CEO commented that he expects the majority of 3D XPoint production to ship in the DIMM form factor. Apparently, the Optane DIMMs are alive and well, as Intel indicated they are already sampling to data center customers. Intel jointly produces 3D Xpoint with its IMFT partner Micron, but it has exclusive rights to sell the devices for memory use cases for an as yet publicly undefined period of time. The company also noted that it would ship Optane SSDs this quarter, and it predicts that 3D XPoint will account for 10% of its revenue this year. Intel's full-year 2016 revenue weighed in at $59.4 billion, and with no Optane products on the market at this point, it obviously plans for brisk sales in order to reach the 10% goal by the end of the year.

  • Evil_Overlord
    "Intel's speedy Optane storage devices promise to offer up to 4x the endurance and 10x lower latency than NAND-based SSDs, along with a 3x increase in endurance."

    How much higher is the endurance rating compared to NAND-based SSDs?
    Reply
  • dilbert
    One of those numbers is probably related to performance and not endurance
    Reply
  • InvalidError
    The industry does not really need that much of an overhaul to accommodate slower non-volatile RAM: simply let the OS use it as a dedicated swapfile, that will be good enough for most cases. For performance-critical software, you'll still want to have enough SRAM or RAM to fit the most performance-critical code and data.
    Reply
  • takeshi7
    "Most new bleeding-edge technology spends its infancy in the data center and then trickles down to the consumer market"

    I don't think that's always true. There's plenty of technologies that start out in the consumer market and are then only accepted into the server market later, after they've been more thoroughly validated and proven to be reliable.
    Reply
  • TJ Hooker
    We initially spotted Intel's Optane DIMMs
    I thought "Optane" specifically referred to Intel's storage class 3D Xpoint products, not memory-class DIMMs? Although they still somewhat confusingly refer to it as "Optane Memory".
    Reply
  • none12345
    Im struggling to see the need for this.

    In the server world, you dont turn the servers off, you want them going 24/7, so why not just fast dram? I know cost, but dram cost isnt that bad. The only benefit i can see is lower power to ram, but that should already be a small fraction of the total cost. Either you need a lot of fast ram and this will make no difference, or you dont, and again it makes no difference. In the dont case, you just swap to ssd until you task switch back. If they want to just make it a faster cheaper ssd, then go for it, but why the extra complexity of tring to slot it in between dram and ssds.

    In the consumer world, ok cost. But, a layer of compexity will need to be added, so is the cost vs complexisty trade off worth it.

    I mean....if it was faster than dram, and non volitie, and cheaper....well then sure, bring it on... But we are talking about slower then dram, so there is draw back.

    I can see some glints of edge cases where it might make sense. But mainstream, i just dont see it.

    And i can see some mobile possibilities, but i dont give a crap about mobile.
    Reply
  • TJ Hooker
    19233951 said:
    In the server world, you dont turn the servers off, you want them going 24/7, so why not just fast dram? I know cost, but dram cost isnt that bad. The only benefit i can see is lower power to ram, but that should already be a small fraction of the total cost. Either you need a lot of fast ram and this will make no difference, or you dont, and again it makes no difference. In the dont case, you just swap to ssd until you task switch back. If they want to just make it a faster cheaper ssd, then go for it, but why the extra complexity of tring to slot it in between dram and ssds.
    1) I believe XPoint DIMMs will have larger capacities than DDR4, allowing for more memory
    3) Cost per GB
    2) Nonvolatile, so you don't have to worry about getting more expensive NVDIMMs or risking data loss in the event of power loss
    Reply
  • problematiq
    19233951 said:
    Im struggling to see the need for this.

    In the server world, you dont turn the servers off, you want them going 24/7, so why not just fast dram? I know cost, but dram cost isnt that bad. The only benefit i can see is lower power to ram, but that should already be a small fraction of the total cost. Either you need a lot of fast ram and this will make no difference, or you dont, and again it makes no difference. In the dont case, you just swap to ssd until you task switch back. If they want to just make it a faster cheaper ssd, then go for it, but why the extra complexity of tring to slot it in between dram and ssds.

    In the consumer world, ok cost. But, a layer of compexity will need to be added, so is the cost vs complexisty trade off worth it.

    I mean....if it was faster than dram, and non volitie, and cheaper....well then sure, bring it on... But we are talking about slower then dram, so there is draw back.

    I can see some glints of edge cases where it might make sense. But mainstream, i just dont see it.

    And i can see some mobile possibilities, but i dont give a crap about mobile.

    Though power consumption is low, it is a big deal for data centers. every watt of power used equates to not just the cost of the power but also the cost to remove the heat. also ECC ram is not cheap. it also lowers the wear and tear on the drives, due to not having to refresh the data as often. You point makes a lot of sense if you are dealing with a few servers, but when you have a data center with 10's of thousands of servers it changes things.
    Reply
  • InvalidError
    19233951 said:
    Im struggling to see the need for this.
    I imagine the biggest application will be memory-resident databases: with normal RAM, you need massive multi-processor servers to cram several TBs of RAM in the box. With XPoint, we'll likely see DIMMs with several TBs per slot, allowing the same or even larger memory-resident databases to fit in single-socket servers, resulting in massive space, power and hardware cost savings for that particular application.
    Reply
  • littleleo
    With the increase in DRAM and Nand prices if your Intel it's not a bad thing to allow the market prices to climb higher before releasing your new Memory and storage products. You can release them at a higher price and still be competitive and make more revenue. I think only the Kaby lake motherboards are ready for them so it gives more time for that platform to grow and get more users that can use the new XPoint products. I wonder which older platforms (if any) will be able to use the new XPoint memory and storage products.
    Reply