Intel, Micron Claim Chip Breakthrough

SAN FRANCISCO— Intel Corp. and Micron Technology Inc. say they developed a new breed of memory chips that could bring dramatic performance gains to computers, smartphones and other kinds of high-tech products.
The companies say the forthcoming chips will be up to 1,000 times faster than the NAND flash memory chips now used in most mobile devices, while storing 10 times more data than dynamic random access memory, or DRAM, chips that are another mainstay of electronics hardware.
Their technology—dubbed 3D Xpoint—doesn’t quite match the speed of the chips known as DRAMs. But unlike those chips—and like NAND flash memory—the new chips will retain data even after they’re powered off, the companies say.
“This is a whole new paradigm,” said Mark Adams, Micron’s president, predicting the technology will cause “a major disruption” in the $78.5 billion memory-chip market.
Intel and Micron executives predict the new chips’ speed will spur new kinds of applications and greatly benefit others, particularly those that rely on finding patterns in large amounts of data, like voice recognition, financial fraud detection and the study of genes.

But the importance--and originality--of the technology may be hotly debated. Plenty of other companies have claimed significant advances in memory chips in recent years.
Sylvain Dubois, vice president of strategic marketing and business development at startup Crossbar Inc., said Intel and Micron seem to be emulating elements of its resistive RAM technology. “It sounds very much like what we have,” he said.
Others, like Everspin Technologies Inc., believe they have a head start in delivering DRAM-class speed on chips that provide persistent data storage.
Intel, the Silicon Valley giant better known for microprocessor chips, has been collaborating with Micron on NAND technology since 2006. Micron, an Idaho-based company that also makes DRAMs, recently has been the focus of a $23 billion takeover offer prepared by the Chinese state-owned company Tsinghua Unigroup Ltd. Micron has declined to comment on the matter.
Memory is a big market. About $78.5 billion worth of DRAM and NAND chips will be purchased in 2015, the research firm IDC estimates.
One force behind recent innovations in digital memory is the diminishing return produced by the conventional way of boosting storage capacity: shrinking the size of circuitry on chips. Makers of NAND chips, including Intel and Micron, have said they would stop pursuing that tactic in favor of stacking layers of circuitry in three dimensions.
Intel and Micron aren’t revealing some technology details, including some materials they are using or the pricing of their initial chips. They expect to start delivering sample quantities from a jointly owned factory in Utah later this year, two-layer chips that store 128 gigabits of data, matching some existing NAND chips. They plan to boost capacities later by stacking more circuitry.
Hardware designers wanting to exploit the technology have to ponder some choices. They could make equivalents of the solid-state drives that are currently made using NAND flash chips. But those devices use connections that would allow only a tenfold speedup over existing products, Intel and Micron said.
More speed gains can be harnessed if the chips are connected directly to microprocessors, using the same connections as DRAMs. Though designers could theoretically use the new chips alone, Micron and Intel think they will accompany a variety of other chips.
“This is not a replacement technology,” said Rob Crooke, an Intel senior vice president. “This is an invention that opens up new sorts of applications.”
Marion Morales, an IDC analyst briefed on the technology, said assessing its true merits will take until 2016 or 2017. One potential hurdle is the fact that only Intel and Micron will make the new chips; most prior memory chip markets have begun with more suppliers, reducing the risk to customers if one line of products faces technical or manufacturing problems.
Some industry executives said Micron and Intel are among the few companies with the manufacturing prowess to reassure customers. Their commitment to produce the new chips is a more significant statement than a research breakthrough, said Bob O’Donnell,an analyst at Technalysis Research. “That, to me, is the big story,” he said.
Source: by Don Clark


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