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Gifts From Intel’s Optane Memory

Intel announced that they are winding down their Optane memory business during their most recent quarterly report. At the 2022 Flash Memory Summit, Intel’s announcement led to lots of discussion about what the Intel announcement means for the industry. The great amount of capital and effort that Intel and Micron spent developing and commercializing 3D XPoint memory show how hard it can be to bring a new memory technology to market.

But this great work also resulted in initiatives that created new memory and storage concepts that enable new computing architectures to improve the capability to process data in the most efficient and effective manner possible. Let’s look at some of the gifts of 3D XPoint (Optane).

Micron and Intel introduced 3D XPoint memory (a form of Phase Change Memory) just before and during the 2015 Flash Memory Summit. The initial product announced was a two-layer crossbar memory architecture that was to be available in 3D XPoint SSDs and in memory modules that could be used alongside DRAM in Intel server processors. The original 3D XPoint product is shown in the image below.

Intel began shipping Optane brand 3D XPoint NVMe SSDs in 2017. The 3D XPoint memory DIMMs started shipping in 2018. In 2021 Micron announced that it was getting out of the 3D XPoint business and sold the manufacturing plant in Utah where 3D XPoint was mostly manufactured. In 2021 Intel stopped production of consumer NVMe Optane-only SSDs. During this time Intel and Micron developed three generations of 3D XPoint memory. The second generation 3D XPoint (announced in 2019) went from two to four layers of memory cells. The image below shows an earlier vision for Optane products pared with Intel’s server chips.

At the Flash Memory Summit, Intel had a booth. I spoke with folks at that booth about what Intel’s winding down of Optane was all about. They told me that Intel would continue to support Optane customers and they would continue to sell existing Optane SSDs and memory modules. Intel also said that it was continuing the qualification of its third generation Optane with customers. It appears that the winding down of Optane will be a more or less gradual process.

So, what did all that work to develop and market Optane bring us? It particularly paved the way for persistent or non-volatile memories that might displace or complement volatile standalone memories. In particular, it influenced the development of software that can manage non-volatile memory and new interfaces and fabrics for non-volatile memory. This included the development of the SNIA non-volatile memory programming model and the CXL memory interface.

SNIA was working on the different ways that non-volatile memory could be used in future storage systems before the announcement of 3D XPoint. The SNIA NVM Programming Model version 1 specification was released in 2013. However, the introduction of technologies such as 3D XPoint, increased the effort on this work, which has had an impact on software development to support non-volatile memory.

Intel’s Optane memory was a big factor in the development of the CXL interface for memory that allow heterogenous memory with various performance and endurance characteristics to be part of a common memory pool. Intel had planned to sell Optane memory with DRAM, other non-volatile memory technologies and computing accelerators that could be part of a CXL fabric and pooled and shared between different processors. Intel will continue to support CXL and CXL modules working with the companies server processors.

A special session was organized at the tail end of the 2022 Flash Memory Summit to talk about Life after Optane. Some Intel folks involved in the Optane development were there and they referred to the enormous effort that was put into making and marketing these products. In our upcoming Emerging Memory Report we estimate that total Intel Optane losses over the years was over $7B, as shown in the figure below. Clearly much effort and capital has been spent working to create demand for this new groundbreaking memory technology.

Intel plans a gradual “winding down” of its Optane business, while supporting its existing products and customers and continued qualification of its third generation Optane product. The company’s considerable investment in bringing out this groundbreaking technology created gifts to the industry such as the CXL memory fabric and showed how difficult it can be to commercialize a new memory technology.