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What Makes Intel's 3D Storage so Quick?

Intel and Micron have teamed up to produce a new memory technology that is up to 1000 times faster than Nand flash storage and solid state drives. The two companies claim that their new innovation, named 3D XPoint, will quicken scientific research and allow for vaster video games.

Though still 12 to 18 months away from production, what makes this announcement interesting is that Intel and Micron are actually capable of manufacturing it. While other drive providers often speculate or discussion on future storage technologies, this is one that is becoming a reality.

Intel are branding this as the first new class of mainstream memory since 1989. One of the things which makes 3D XPoint different is that the storage device will retain the data even when powered off, which differs to something like RAM which only holds temporary data.

However, this isn’t being pitched as being used as a flash storage or RAM replacement. Instead, Intel suggest that this new technology could be used alongside them, allowing certain data to be held closer to the processor for quicker access times.

For the average consumer, this might not be of interest. But it’s in the world of big data where it’ll come into play. For example, real-life applications include speeding up the analysis of DNA for medical treatments, quicker handling of cloud storage data, and improved streaming of ultra-high definition video content.

The name 3D XPoint comes from the fact that this new innovation is made from a 3D structure held together by layers of wires. The wires run in parallel on each layer, but at a right-angle to those on the layer below. Between each layer are sub-microscopic columns, connecting the cross-points of the wires.

Each column then contains a memory cell (storing a single bit of data) and a selector (allows the memory cell to be read or rewritten). A traditional Nand chip uses transistors, but this forgoes the need for them.

3D XPoint changes the properties of the materials that make up its memory cell – either giving them a high or low resistance to electricity, depending on whether it represents a one or zero respectively. Each memory cell can then be individually accessed.

While this is all exciting, the technology won’t be replacing flash storage any time soon. Though still more expensive than mechanical drives, solid state drives will be much cheaper than 3D XPoint. As such, it will likely be used as middle step – data won’t be copied from slow storage to RAM, but instead the data access will be anticipated and transferred onto 3D XPoint in advance.

One current application could be for gaming companies. Rather than using RAM for their online servers, they could use 3D XPoint – though the consumer experience would be mostly the same, it would allow the servers to support far more people.

Another future application could be for 3D XPoint to store files required to boot an operating system, allowing for “an instant-on experience,” according to Intel’s Greg Matson.

Currently, 3D XPoint has yet to enter production, nor have full pricing details been revealed.

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