A few months ago, I wrote about the evolution of storage technologies and interfaces, from SATA-based hard-disk drives (HDDs) and solid-state drives (SSDs) to more modern NAND SSDs that use Peripheral Component Interconnect Express (PCIe) interfaces and non-volatile memory express (NVMe) controllers. I also talked about more recent developments, like 3D NAND SSDs. But as I wrote before, the real game changer is newer 3D XPoint technology. SSDs built on 3D XPoint technology, like Intel Optane SSDs, offer persistent memory at near-DRAM speeds, but at a fraction of the cost of DRAM.

In this post, I’ll take a deeper look at 3D XPoint technology and the truly groundbreaking potential it promises.

What Makes 3D XPoint Unique?

3D XPoint technology is unique because it combines the density and non-volatility of NAND SSDs with speeds near that of DRAM. That positions 3D XPoint drives into a new storage tier, between volatile memory and non-volatile flash SSDs.

Intel Optane SSDs aren’t yet at a speed or price-point that will convince companies to swap out all their server DRAM for 3D XPoint technology. But savvy IT admins will be able to reduce costs by replacing some DRAM with Intel Optane SSDs, and by using the new drives to enhance the performance of their existing flash-based SSDs.

Why would it be worth the effort? Here are some incentives for you. According to Intel, 3D XPoint technology delivers:

  • Up to 10x more performance than NAND over a PCIe NVMe interface[1]
  • About 8x to 10x greater density than DRAM1
  • Exceptionally high endurance, compared to NAND SSDs1
  • Latency measured in nanoseconds (close to DRAM) as opposed to microseconds (SSDs) or milliseconds (HDDs)1

What Makes 3D XPoint Tick?

3D XPoint technology was jointly developed by Intel and Micron. The two companies describe the technology as using a cross-point array structure, consisting of perpendicular conductors connecting 128 billion densely packed memory cells.

In other words, the memory cells are arranged in columns, each with a memory cell and selector. Those columns are connected to each other with a cross-point structure consisting of perpendicular wires. Individual memory cells can be addressed by using one wire on top and one on the bottom. Each memory cell stores a single bit of data.

This compact structure results in high performance and high density. In addition, the memory grids can be stacked to maximize density. Currently, 3D XPoint technology stores 128Gb per die across two stacked memory layers. Future generations of this technology can increase the number of memory layers or use other techniques to increase die capacity.

Figure 1. 3D XPoint technology uses an innovative, high-density design.

Figure 1. 3D XPoint technology uses an innovative, high-density design.

Unlike volatile memory, 3D XPoint doesn’t rely on transistors to mark the state of each memory cell. Instead, it just varies the voltage sent to the associated selector. Eliminating transistors shrinks the size of the structure, which allows for a significant increase in memory cell capacity.

For a more visual description of 3D XPoint, take a look at the following video from Intel: http://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/architecture-and-technology/intel-optane-technology.html

New Possibilities across Industries

3D XPoint drives excel at servicing random, transactional data sets that are not optimized for in-memory processing. For businesses that rely on complex, random analytics, 3D XPoint drives would be useful for performing limited real-time analytics on current data sets or for storing and updating records in real time.

Intel clearly sees a broad range of other analytical uses for its implementation of 3D XPoint. According to the company’s Intel Optane web pages, the advance memory could be used by retailers to more quickly identify fraud detection patterns, by financial institutions to accelerate trading, or by healthcare researchers to work with even larger data sets in real-time.[2]

Of course, none of this means NAND flash will be going away any time soon. In fact, NAND flash will continue to be useful for storing data that can be sequentially processed overnight. But for time-critical analytics, 3D XPoint drives will take their place alongside DRAM as part of a cost-effective continuum of data processing options.

The State of Intel Optane: Today and Tomorrow

Intel currently sells the 375GB Intel Optane SSD DC P4800X Series, which uses a PCIe NVMe 3.0 x4 (four-lane) interface, and the Intel Optane memory module for PCs.

The Optane SSD DC P4800X Series is designed to enable data centers to accelerate applications for fast caching and storage, increase scale per server, and reduce transaction costs for latency-sensitive workloads. Companies can also process larger data sets to gain new insights that were unaffordable or impractical with DRAMs. Intel is planning to release additional Optane SSD options for both data centers and consumers over the next several months.

The Intel Optane memory module can be used to accelerate any SATA storage device installed in a 7th-generation Intel Core processor-based platform that is designated as “Intel Optane memory ready.” The Optane add-in memory module acts as a cache to increase performance in laptops and desktops. According to Intel, the Intel Optane memory PC accelerator module provides up to 2x faster boot,[3] 5x faster web browser launch,[4] and 67% faster game launch.[5]

The adoption rate for 3D XPoint memory will likely be slow initially because the technology requires servers built on newer processor chipsets. In addition, applications need to be re-written to fully support 3D XPoint. But as enterprises slowly modernize their servers and software, 3D XPoint drives and memory will inevitably become a fixture in the data center.

Learn more

Learn more about 3D XPoint technology and Intel Optane memory: http://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/architecture-and-technology/intel-optane-technology.html

And for the latest on emerging tech, check back often and follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.

[1] Technology claims are based on comparisons of latency, density, and write cycling metrics amongst memory technologies recorded on published specifications of in-market memory products against internal Intel specifications. http://www.intelsalestraining.com/infographics/memory/3DXPointc.pdf

[2] http://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/architecture-and-technology/intel-optane-technology.html

[3] OS Load Time Workload – Time elapsed from initiating power-on (from powered-off state) until the operating system has completed loading. http://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/architecture-and-technology/optane-memory.html

[4] Browser Launch Workload – Time elapsed to launch Google Chrome. http://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/architecture-and-technology/optane-memory.html

[5] Game Launch & Level Load Workload – Workload developed by Intel measuring the time elapsed to launch Bethesda Softworks Fallout 4 and reach the Main Menu with intro videos disabled (Launch), and the time elapsed from the Main Menu to completion of level loading (Level Load). http://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/architecture-and-technology/optane-memory.html

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