Almost 10 years since Micron first began working with Intel to develop 3D XPoint, a technology that the two companies once said would change the market, the Boise-based memory chipmaker is jumping ship.
Micron’s Utah-based facility, which the company is looking to sell. Image used courtesy of Micron
In an announcement last week, Micron said it planned to cease the development of 3D XPoint, namely because it no longer considers the memory chips a commercially-viable venture that would justify the expense of continued production.
3D XPoint Replaces the Hope of Storage-class Memory
Those in the semiconductor industry will know that for years now, the concept of storage-class memory (SCM), a type of NAND flash that includes its own power source, has been a very hot topic.
SCM balances price and performance, falling somewhere in the middle of the two most dominant forms of memory chip: DRAM, which is fast but expensive, and NAND, which is slower but cheaper. Such an achievement would undoubtedly bring about a new age of memory computing.
In recent years, however, it looked as if a different type of NVM technology, 3D XPoint, would bring about this “new age” instead.
The Once-bright Future of 3D XPoint
Intel and Micron teamed up in 2015 to produce 3D XPoint, which at the time was the first new type of memory created in over 25 years. Promising performance improvements up to 1,000 times faster than NAND memory, it was the product of over a decade’s worth of research.
The device was created by using a transistor-less cross point architecture to build a three-dimensional “checkerboard” in which memory cells sit at the intersection of word and bit lines, enabling faster read and write processes.
By 2017, Intel had brought its first 3D XPoint technology to market: Optane, which is now in commercial use.
Intel Optane memory chip. Screenshot used courtesy of Intel
In 2018, Intel and Micron split, with the latter buying out Intel’s stake in their joint venture IM Flash for $1.5 billion. One year on, in October 2019, Micron released its X100 SSD based on 3D XPoint technology.
Micron Pulls the Plug
But now Micron has pulled the plug on its development efforts into 3D XPoint, signaling what could be a troubling road ahead for the technology in general.
Indeed, signs pointed to potential problems in 2019 when Micron first introduced its X100 SSDs, which are aimed at data center applications. At the time, Micron’s chief business officer Sumit Sadana spoke candidly of the tepid response that the product had received, namely because these customers would have had to re-write large parts of their software to use X100 products.
Micron’s X100 SSDs. Image used courtesy of Micron and KSL
Because of low demand, Micron struggled to scale production to a volume that justified the costs of developing the chips, with Sadana saying that the under-utilization of the Utah factory estimated to cost Micron $400 million this year alone.
Will 3D XPoint’s Demise Affect Intel’s Optane?
“We will end 3D XPoint development immediately and cease manufacturing 3D XPoint products upon completing our industry commitments over the next several quarters,” Sadana notes.
Instead, Micron will use its XPoint process technology and X100 XPoint SSD design teams to develop new CXL-based storage-class memory products over the next few years. In doing so, Micron will position itself as a competitor to Intel and its 3D XPoint technology/Optane products in the memory market.
In a statement, Intel said that Micron’s announcement doesn’t change the company’s strategy for Optane nor does it affect the company’s ability to supply Optane products.