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Faster-than-flash storage unveiled
October 19, 2015, 1:53 pm

A new kind of memory technology is going into production, which is up to 1,000 times faster than the Nand flash storage used in memory cards and computers' solid state drives (SSDs).

Called 3D XPoint, it is the invention of Intel and Micron. The two US companies predict a wide range of benefits, from speeding up scientific research to making more elaborate video games.

There are other companies who have talked about new types of memory technology, but this is about being able to manufacture the stuff. If all goes to plan, the first products to feature 3D XPoint (pronounced cross-point) will go on sale next year. Its price has yet to be announced.

Rather than pitch it as a replacement for either flash storage or RAM (random access memory), the company suggests it will be used alongside them to hold certain data "closer" to a processor so that it can be accessed more quickly than before. Why do we need faster storage? The flash storage in my smartphone and PC seems more than fast enough to view and record the photos and videos I want.

Because there are other situations where using today's storage slows things down or introduces constraints. So-called ‘big data’ tasks are a particular issue. For example, efforts to sequence and analyze our genes/DNA hold the potential for new and personalized medical treatments.

But copying the huge amounts of information involved backwards and forwards makes this an extremely time-intensive activity at present. Faster storage would also help cloud services better handle big files.

That could be helpful in the future, for example, if we wanted to stream 8K ultra-high definition video clips without experiencing lags at their start. And it would also prove a boon to video game-makers.

At present, designs are limited by how much data can be stored in the RAM - or, strictly, a type of RAM chip called dynamic RAM (DRAM). That is why players sometimes have to halt their play while they wait for the machine to load a new section. But if the data can be loaded more quickly from 3D XPoint, the developers should, in theory, be able to deliver them bigger, open worlds and a more seamless experience.

Until 3D XPoint becomes mainstream solid state drives - and even slower hard disks - will remain significantly cheaper, so it makes sense to continue using them to store most files.

Many users have already experienced faster switch-on times on new computers thanks to such files being kept on SSDs rather than disk drives. A similar performance leap would be experienced by adopting 3D Xpoint. "It would make for an instant-on experience," says Intel's marketing director Greg Matson. Whether that proves tempting will depend on exactly what 3D Xpoint costs and just how precious your time is.


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