TORONTO — What the future holds for 3D XPoint — now that Intel and Micron have announced plans to end their joint development program — depends on who you talk to.

Or who you don't talk to. Micron, for its part, isn't offering any more guidance right now beyond what was stated in a joint news release issued earlier this week. "The companies have agreed to complete joint development for the second generation of 3D XPoint technology, which is expected to occur in the first half of 2019," the statement reads. "Technology development beyond the second generation of 3D XPoint technology will be pursued independently by the two companies in order to optimize the technology for their respective product and business needs."

Intel is still bullish on the technology. In a telephone interview with EE Times, Bill Leszinske, vice president of Intel's non-volatile memory solutions group, said it makes sense for Intel to continue on its present path.

"We believe in the technology," Leszinske said. He added that what Intel now calls Optane technology presents opportunities on a DIMM in a server as well as high-performance storage either in a server or a client device.

Not surprisingly, Leszinske wouldn't speak on behalf of Micron or speculate on its intentions but did say that Intel believes in the 3D XPoint technology direction the partners had jointly chosen. “Just like in 3D NAND, we believe in the floating gate direction that we've chosen," he said. "In the end, Micron said they have a different direction that they would like to head."

Intel 3D Xpoint die

Intel's 3D XPoint die.

The biggest impact of the Intel/Micron partnership wind-down is that each company will have to completely fund its own technology development, said Leszinske. He acknowledged that this is an expensive commitment, one that includes putting Optane on DIMMs — announced by Intel in May. Dubbed Optane DC Persistent Memory, it's being sampled by customers now, he said, and will be in production the second half of this year, followed by broader availability in 2019.

So far, 3D Xpoint has only found its way into SSDs. As storage media, it may become what NAND flash was in its early days — an augmentation to spinning disk-based storage for data that needs to be accessed frequently and quickly, with flash taking the place of hard drives. "For us, having Optane and low-cost 3D NAND is our direction," said Leszinske. "We have the ability to go invest in that, and we will."

Optane is all about high performance/low latency, he said, while NAND is all about high-density affordable costs so Intel can replace hard drives and reduce customers' operating costs in a data center or make it a better-performing client device. "We will shoot for lower cost even if the performance isn't quite as good because we think bulk replacing of hard drives and building out more tiers of salvaging storage is a better business result for our customers," Leszinske said. 

Intel's Optane has found its way into real-world use cases. The University of Pisa in Italy, for example, is able to process MRIs in two minutes rather than 40, something that claustrophobic patients appreciate, said Leszinske. "That's been an amazing experience that we never would have envisioned. We know there's more of those things out there," he said. 

Intel's enthusiasm for 3D XPoint sounds every much like the buzz around the initial announcement that it and Micron were developing an entirely new class of non-volatile memory that claimed dramatically lower latency and exponentially greater endurance than NAND memory. At the time, there was a lot of speculation about 3D XPoint and the expectation that it would turn up in SSDs and DIMMs.

It's been nearly three years since 3D XPoint was unveiled. As Jim Handy, principal analyst at Objective Analysis, notes, it didn't take long to figure out that the SSDs weren't going to be able to take advantage of 3D XPoint's speed.

"And they seem to be in a struggle to get the DIMM out for whatever reason," Handy said, adding that Micron recently said that its Lehi, Utah, facility was idle. "And the only thing that the Lehi plant has been making for the past six months is 3D XPoint memory," Handy said. 

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Objective Analyst notes that Intel's NAND flash business has been underperforming while other plays are doing quite well.

Handy said that this would seem to suggest that there's over-inventory of 3D XPoint SSDs and that they aren't selling as well as they could. "The SSDs are not really compelling," Handy said. "They're significantly more expensive and nominally better-performing than a NAND flash SSD."

Handy said that it's important to note that Intel is the only one selling anything with 3D XPoint in it. It's also important to remember that Micron and Intel's businesses are different.

"Micron's in an interesting place because they know exactly what it cost to make 3D XPoint memory and they have chosen not to introduce SSDs," said Handy. "Which, to me, says that they don't want lose money on it like Intel is." Micron would have to answer to investors if they lose money on the technology, but for Intel, losing money is fine as long as 3D XPoint helps with its Xeon sales, Handy said.

That being said, Intel's storage unit has been underperforming while everyone else in the NAND flash business "has been reaping in gobs of money," said Handy. And although Intel may optimistic about the opportunities for 3D XPoint, Intel being the only supplier of the technology might put a damper on plans by OEMs such as Dell or HP to build a product line around Optane. "How warm and fuzzy would you feel about your source of supply?"

— Gary Hilson is a general contributing editor with a focus on memory and flash technologies for EE Times.