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.

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  • 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?
  • dilbert
    One of those numbers is probably related to performance and not endurance
  • 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.