Will 3D-XPoint memory technology be the next step in supply chain evolution?

A report issued recently on the BBC.com website tells of an exciting new development in computer memory technology that is supposedly 1,000 times faster than the Nand flash storage that memory cards and SSDs (Solids State Drives) incorporate. As well as accelerating the speed of scientific research, it will also impact of the speed and complexity of future video games. The exciting prospect for supply chain technology is that 3D-XPoint will speed up storage of things like Big Data, and provide faster access to data stored in the Cloud. 3d-xpoint

The first new mainstream memory invention since 1989

This new development, which is the first new mainstream memory invention since Nand flash first burst onto the scene back in 1989,  is the brainchild of Intel and Micron, and is being called “3D-XPoint” wherein the “Xpoint” is pronounced “Cross-Point.” One particular cyber-expert has described the birth of 3D-Xpoint as a huge step forward.

According to Bob O’Donnell of Technalysis, many companies have been talking about a new type of memory technology for ages. But this new invention is something quite different. It is actually all about being able to manufacture and fabricate a new memory structure, which is why it is such an exciting development.

3D-XPoint technology is non-volatile

One very important factor about 3D-XPoint, and one which is contributing to the excitement about this new development, is the fact that it retains its memory even when the power is switched off, unlike RAM which loses its memory. However RAM remains quicker. It is therefore likely that 3D-XPoint will be rolled out alongside RAM, being used to hold specific data closer to the processor, thus enabling it to be accessed much quicker than it was before.

3D-XPoint technology will be available next year

If the development of the new technology remains on schedule, products incorporating 3D-XPoint technology should be on sale sometime next year. However, at this point in time it is uncertain what effect the inclusion of this new technology will have on product prices.

Although Nand flash storage proves fast enough for many “standard” applications; things like Smartphones and PCs, it’s not fast enough when it comes down to handling things like Big Data. Well, let’s qualify that statement. It can handle it because it is doing so now; but the point is that it could be handled faster, and in certain instances (such as with scientific research or supply chain operation and data analytics) faster handling would bring considerable benefits.

The advantages of 3D-XPoint for the Gaming world

The other area where 3D-Xpoint would have considerable benefits is the Gaming world. Currently, all game designs are being limited by the amount of data that can be stored in RAM; or more specifically the chip known as DRAM, which stands for Dynamic Random Access Memory. Because of RAMs inability to retain memory when it is shut off that’s why game players often have to stop their games and wait while their Xbox or other device loads up a new section. But if the data that could be downloaded more quickly using 3D-XPoint for example, then in principle game developers should be able to design better worlds with a more seamless interface and no loading delays.

How 3D-XPoint technology works

The name itself, “3D-XPoint,” actually describes the basics of this particular technology. It consists of a 3D structure made up from layers of wire. On each individual layer, all of the wires that layer contains run in parallel with one another, but are positioned at right angles to the wires on the layer below, in the fashion of a layered cross-cross. A number of vertical columns then separate and space apart each layer. Each individual column is a separate, individual memory cell which contains a separate, individual piece of memory data. In binary terms each column is either a zero or a one.

Each memory cell has its own “selector,” and this permits the cell to be either rewritten or read. Access to each cell is governed by the varying amounts of voltage that the cell receives through the wires.

Nand flash chips incorporate transistors in which floating electrons are cycled to a part of the transistor called its “floating gate.” These gates are the equivalent of the zeroes and ones in binary logic. The problem or limitation with this technology is that you can’t rewrite individual pieces of data. It’s all or nothing. Intel exec, Rob Crooke, likens this to a car park full of cars that are all jam-packed in. In order to move a car at the back, all of the cars have to be removed first. It’s the same to get a car out or to put a new car in.

With 3D-XPoint technology however, the characteristics of the cells can be changed by applying a voltage, to have either a high or a low resistance, effectively changing them from a zero to a one, or vice versa in binary terms. It means that the memory in each individual memory cell can be rewritten.

Will last longer than Nand flash

There is another advantage too, and that is that 3D-XPoint will last substantially longer than Nand technology before it becomes un-operational.

It doesn’t however mean that Solid State Drives are going to be made obsolete. SSDs are much cheaper than 3D-XPoint technology and will remain so for the immediate future; so unless there is a real big advantage, there is no point in changing over.

It’s probably likely that 3D-XP will become something of an intermediary step, whereby instead of transferring data straight from types of storage which perform more slowly, applications will forecast what data they are likely to require, and then will transfer that data to a 3D-XPoint device in advance.

Will 3D-XPoint replace RAM?

It’s unlikely at this point in time that 3D-XP will completely replace RAM.  Because RAM is so fast, it tends to be the first choice chip to employ for sending data directly into processors. The problem is that RAM is quite expensive to make, therefore computer manufacturers are prone to minimize the amount of RAM they put into each product.

While megabytes of 3D-XP will undoubtedly be less expensive to manufacture than the same volume of RAM, RAM is still measurably faster, and in some instances, this increased speed is essential. So unless 3D-XP can be speeded up even further (which it cannot at this point in time), there will always be a need and use for RAM.

For most ordinary PC home users, the only immediate benefit of having 3D-XP instead of RAM would be in the start-up process. You would get more of an instant start-up feature. But given that we don’t know what the price implication is with 3D-XP, it may just turn out to be too expensive for the sake of only saving a few seconds.

3D-XPoint technology could take supply chains to the next level

In the business world however, and in supply chain in particular, it will be interesting to see how the market reacts when the product becomes available next year. 3D-XPoint technology could bring some very real benefits and advantages in terms of handing larger amounts of data that much more quickly. It could take supply chains to the next level of their development.

How important are data analytics and Big Date to the evolution of your supply chain technology? Will you invest in new 3D-XPoint technology when it becomes available? What do you stand to gain? Have your say at the feedback section below.

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