Contrary to the implications of recent news and presentations, Intel says it is not backing away from 3D XPoint, confirming to B&F that it plans to enable “our third-generation Optane Products with Sapphire Rapids.”
Since Micron withdrew from the 3D XPoint market, Pat Gelsinger took over as Intel’s CEO, and the company’s NAND non-volatile memory business is being sold to SK Hynix, questions have arisen about the future of Intel’s remaining non-volatile memory business.
This is the Optane SSD and Persistent Memory (PMem) operation, based on 3D XPoint technology, which was manufactured for Intel in a Micron fab at Lehi, Utah. Intel carried out XPoint research and development at its Rio Rancho plant in New Mexico. Second generation XPoint devices are currently being shipped, although third and fourth-generation devices were shown on a 2020 Intel roadmap, without dates ascribed.
However, over the past few months Intel has been silent about its Optane commitment and plans. From a product strategy point of view, Optane Persistent Memory, restricted to Xeon CPU connectivity, has been seen as a way of helping Intel’s Xeon processors better compete with AMD’s server CPUs by effectively giving Xeons more memory, thus speeding applications.
Intel, under Gelsinger, is now looking to regain processor leadership over AMD and, with the aid of high-bandwidth memory, Xeon DRAM capacity limitations are being removed. That means the strategic necessity of having Optane PMem as a Xeon crutch is being lessened.
In February we learnt that Alper Ilkbahar, VP and GM for Intel’s Data Centre Memory and Storage Solutions unit, which includes the Optane business, is resigning. It also transpired that Intel had made more than a half-billion-dollar loss on its Optane 3D XPoint business in 2020.
Intel did not mention or promote Optane at its recent Investor Day event. Objective Analysis’s Jim Handy told us: ”It’s hard to tell how committed Intel is to 3D XPoint/Optane. I have seen no mention of it in management’s statements since Gelsinger took the helm. The silence is deafening… Read into this what you will. Intel is certainly not beating the Optane drum very hard.”
Ben Thompson’s Stratechery blog published an interview with Pat Gelsinger on 24 February, in which Gelsinger said: “I never want to be in memory, you see I’m doing everything I can to exit our memory businesses in that regard.”
Analyst Tom Coughlin wrote a Forbes article on 28 February, headlined “Is Intel Going To Drop Optane?”, where he commented: “It is likely that Intel will sell its remaining stock of current Optane products but not create new products for CXL and PCIe Gen 5 products.“
“Rumors abound that the company will not develop new Optane products,” he added, concluding: ”Intel hasn’t announced new Optane memory products for over a year and hasn’t created significant new 3D XPoint production since the Micron owned Lehi facility was shut down in 2021. This once promising non-volatile memory technology may be in its last product generation.”
All this prompted us to ask Intel if it was committed to developing Optane and 3D XPoint. Ann Goldman of Intel’s Global Communications Group replied, saying: “We continue to work closely with customers and partners on memory and storage technologies, including enabling our third-generation Optane Products with Sapphire Rapids. In addition, we are enabling the ecosystem to be ready for key technologies such as memory tiering over CXL.”
That would place Optane PMem on the CXL bus for use as fast, non-volatile memory by applications running in servers connected to the CXL bus.
Intel is therefore not at the 3D XPoint exit point.
As a reminder, Optane is Intel’s brand name for devices built using 3D XPoint media. This is an implementation of Phase-Change Memory in which an electrical current is used to change the state of a chalcogenide glass material from crystalline to amorphous and back again. The two states have different resistance levels and these are used to signal binary ones and zeroes. Each state is persistent or non-volatile.
The XPoint media is fabricated in cells which are laid out in a 2-layer crosspoint array. Access time is faster than NAND flash but slower than DRAM, with writes taking about three times longer than reads.
Optane can be implemented as a memory bus-connected DIMM (PMem) or as an NVMe-connected SSD.