Intel made a slew of announcements today, including workstation support for Optane DC Persistent Memory DIMMs, which will eventually lead to support on the mainstream client desktops, like gaming PCs. These DIMMs slot into the DDR4 interface, just like a stick of RAM, but use Optane memory instead of DRAM to offer up to 512GB of memory capacity per stick.
Intel also announced new SSD 665p manufactured with 96-Layer QLC flash and revealed a roadmap outlining its future Optane SSD products and new 144-Layer QLC NAND. The company also announced that it is working towards developing 5-bit-per-cell flash, otherwise known as penta-level cell (PLC), to offer a path to increased storage density and lower-priced storage.
Intel's Optane DC Persistent Memory DIMMs come in three capacities of 128, 256, and 512GB. That's a massive capacity increase compared to current DDR4 memory sticks and can be used as either memory or storage, retaining data even when power is removed. Intel designed the DIMMs to bridge both the performance and pricing gap between storage and memory, with the underlying 3D XPoint memory being fast enough to serve as a slower tier of DRAM, though it does require some tuning of the application and driver stacks.
Using Optane memory instead of DRAM promises radical new capabilities and much lower pricing, but the technology has been confined to use in servers, like the Cascade Lake platform. Now Intel is bringing Persistent DIMMs to the workstation market, and then the desktop. Intel hasn't announced a firm arrival date for workstations with the new technology but says that it enables up to 3TB of memory for a single-socket workstation, while dual-socket workstations will have up to 6TB of memory capacity. We have seen numerous server designs that use watercooling for Optane DIMMs, as they require copious amounts of airflow to avoid throttling, so we can expect new workstations to require active cooling for the DIMMS due to much lower airflow rates in the chassis than servers.
Intel's DIMMs are working their way down from the data center to workstations, and the company plans to bring them down a step further into mainstream desktop platforms. That means you'll soon be able to buy a 512GB memory stick for your desktop rig, but while Intel is working with Microsoft to enable the capability through the current ecosystem development initiatives, there is no strict timeline for Optane DIMMs to land on the desktop.
Intel's will follow its first-gen Apache Pass DIMMs with second-gen Barlow Pass modules that will arrive with the 14nm Cooper Lake and 10nm Ice Lake data center processors in 2020. We can also expect those same modules to work with future workstations.
Intel's "Cold Stream" Optane DC P4800X SSDs, which use the same Optane media but serve as fast storage devices, have been shipping in volume for some time. However, the company is already moving forward with its next-gen Alder Stream SSDs, which it has running in its labs. Intel hasn't provided firm specifications for the new SSDs, but touts improved throughput, likely through the move to a PCIe Gen 4 interface, as a key advance. As we've seen with the existing data center models, we can expect those SSD controller improvements to filter down to the client SSD products when Intel refreshes its Optane 900p and 905p.
Intel's SSD 660p uses 64-Layer QLC flash, which stores four bits per cell, to provide increased storage density and lower pricing, albeit at the loss of some performance. The firm plans to release a new SSD 665p with 96-Layer QLC flash, which will expand upon the inherent price advantages of denser media. Intel didn't divulge pricing, performance, or a release date, but it's logical to expect to hear more about these SSDs around the CES timeframe.
Intel is also working on 144-layer QLC flash, and like its soon-to-be ex-manufacturing partner Micron, the company is also developing penta-level flash that stores five bits-per-cell.
Intel is also moving forward on the Optane media front, with a new design center opening in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. Intel didn't mention any specific focus areas of the center, but we can expect this to include the next-gen 3D XPoint media. Intel has numerous paths forward to improve the media, such as higher stacking and/or a smaller lithography among the most obvious areas of development. The company is currently largely bound by the performance of its SSD controllers, meaning they don't allow end devices to extract the full performance of the underlying 3D XPoint memory, so its rational to expect more advances on the SSD controller front before we see the next-gen Optane media arrive.