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Intel-Micron 3D XPoint At Xroads

The Stage Is Set

All is quiet on the non-volatile memory front these last few weeks. Intel-Micron dropped the 3D XPoint bomb in late July, which led to anticipation and speculation prior to the Flash Memory Summit. FMS proved to be a hotbed of speculation, which led to more anticipation ahead of the Intel's Developer Forum (IDF), which led to a great deal of talk, but very little new information.

Looking back, some nuances emerged, some details were clarified and some answers shrunk further into obscurity. We'll try to pick through what we heard, what we know and even what we don't know in an attempt to provide some closure before products begin to show up, or more details slip and slide into our hands.

Everyone seems to agree that 3D XPoint will be the sliced bread of 2016 and beyond, but nobody seems to know if we’re talking Ciabatta or Focaccia (to butcher the analogy). 

Intel put its NVM solutions group GM Robert Crooke on stage at IDF with Al Fazio, an Intel fellow. Together they deftly dodged every detailed, how-it-works question tossed their way, leaving some audience members visibly bewildered. Geof Findley, Intel’s Director of Memory Ecosystems, practically dared his audience to ask questions about 3D XPoint, and himself to answer them; he half cringed, half laughed when he got to that small section of his presentation (on memory). 

We also had a chance to chat with Crooke one-on-one. What follows is a summary of what we learned and what we didn't, along with a few tidbits that go beyond the singular topic of 3D XPoint (pronounced 3D cross-point).

Here was our original piece the day of the Intel-Micron joint announcement. Back then, we learned the structure of 3D XPoint, we saw the models and we heard the explanation. Simply put, 3D XPoint is an intermediary storage layer between NAND and DRAM that offers 1000 times more speed and endurance than NAND along with 10 times the density of DRAM. To top it off, it is persistent, meaning it doesn't lose data when power is removed.

At FMS, we actually saw someone use their arms to re-create the 3D XPoint model (the one in the picture above) in a pantomimed form of solo Twister. One arm was the word line, the other the bit line, and the presenter made his head the memory cell. You get the picture (we didn’t have the foresight to have a camera ready for such a spectacle).

At IDF, Intel had a gigantic 3D model on stage. We learned during the original announcement that Intel is building its first 3D XPoint iteration on the 20nm process with a 128Gb die density, and that there will initially be two layers. The technology could be scaled by stacking layers higher, and eventually by shrinking lithography.

We learned that 3D XPoint used a bulk material property change (rather than a stored charge) to address each cell. This provides a level of granularity we haven’t seen before, and subsequently offers better scalability and higher performance. However, we didn’t learn what that material change process would be.

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Fritz Nelson is Editor-at-Large of Tom's Hardware US.