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May 19, 2017

System memory sticks based on Intel’s 3D-memory tech won’t appear until 2018

by John_A

Why it matters to you

Intel’s revolutionary 3D XPoint memory technology evidently won’t appear in mainstream system memory sticks for quite some time, but now we know Intel’s starting point.

Intel introduced its Optane-branded line of products in April in the form of “cache” sticks to speed up the data access process of hard drives. Offered in 16GB and 32GB capacities, these modules are based on Intel’s new 3D XPoint memory technology that combines the speed of traditional system memory (volatile) and the storage capability of a solid state drive (non-volatile). But where are the Optane-based system memory sticks Intel promised?

According to Mike Ferron-Jones, Intel’s director of datacenter platform technology marketing, Optane system memory sticks won’t appear until sometime in 2018. He said they will be big in capacity, affordable, and persistent, meaning all information stored within these memory sticks (DIMMs) won’t disappear when the host machine is turned off as seen with standard memory in PCs.

“Intel persistent memory will allow users to improve system performance dramatically by putting more data closer to the processor on nonvolatile media, and do it in an affordable manner,” he said. “This will truly be a game-changer when it comes to the way applications and systems are designed.”

The typical system memory stick only stores data while the PC is turned on. It connects to a special slot on the motherboard providing a fast, direct pathway to the processor. In turn, NAND Flash is a type of memory capable of storing data even while the PC is off, but it’s nowhere as quick as traditional memory sticks. These products connect to slower ports on the motherboard via PCI Express (also used by add-in cards) and SATA (also used by hard drives).

3D XPoint bridges the two technologies while also stacking memory cells vertically so that the resulting memory devices aren’t constrained capacity-wise by physical horizontal limitations. That’s one of the big selling points with “3D” flash-based technology, as the skyscraper-like structure provides faster data access because the information is sent to and from “floors” of storage “offices” rather that across a city-wide grid of cells.

That said, 3D XPoint promises to become the next step in the evolution of memory due to its speed, storage capability, and potential capacity. But many were seemingly disappointed that Intel launched 3D XPoint in the form of Optane-branded cache sticks to increase hard drive performance instead of full-blown solid state drives and system memory sticks.

However, Intel claims that these “cache” modules improve overall system performance by up to 28 percent, and hard drive performance access up to 14 times faster than a PC without an Optane module. Connecting to the M.2 slot (2280-S1-B-M) located on a compatible PC’s motherboard, they reside between the processor and SATA-based storage devices (hard drive, SSD, and others), and speed up performance by storing commonly used data and programs. But here’s the catch: Optane products only work with Intel’s seventh-generation processors.

Ferron-Jones indicated that Optane-branded system memory sticks won’t appear until Intel releases its “Cascade Lake” Xeon processor refresh in 2018. Intel partners began testing the memory sticks earlier this year, but when these system memory sticks will hit the mainstream retail space remains unknown.

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