Love it or hate it, your PC’s RAM and Hard Drive (HDD or SSD) will always be an intertwined pair. Combining the best of both volatile and non-volatile memory is the only way to get the most out of their performances, without resorting to exorbitant costs.
Or would it?
Intel may perhaps be on the very cusp of breaking this stalemate and status quo, at least from a marketing, industry-side perspective. Enter Intel Optane, the closest that we can commercially get to combine the two major types of memory in perfect harmony.
What is Optane?
Intel has been currently very privy on the subject, but Optane, as we currently know it is a collective spin of the company’s several working memory technologies. The most important of which is its 3D XPoint memory media system. In the simplest of terms, the 3D XPoint system uses a three-dimensional architecture, which bases its data registry of 1’s and 0’s via a difference in resistance value. The memory module array is stacked in rows that are turned 90 degrees to the layer, which allows for even more memory than what typical flat, two-dimensional design architectures can.
While the 3D XPoint sounds very similar 3D Flash (NAND) memory, it should be noted that both memory systems operate completely differently. 3D Flash is the next step to standard cell-based Flash memory, where it now instead builds three-dimensional cells in order to exponentially improve its efficiency and operation. 3D XPoint on the other hand, is more akin to phase change memory systems, where a change in the basic property each module is assigned a value.
In general, Optane is currently showcased as the first superseding commercial technology for both volatile and non-volatile memory technologies. It promises ‘hot’ RAM-like fast data processing speeds with the ‘cold’ energy independence of your typical HDD or SSD. Instead of the PC’s processor having to constantly communicate between two mediums, it only has to transfer and receive data to the Optane module, which yet again improves overall data performance.
The Memory Dilemma
Up until this point, the tech industry has consistently followed up on Moore’s Law via two-dimensional designs. That is, our memory mediums have constantly been fabricated with a line to line, column to column architecture, even as we got into the GB and non-disk era of data storage.
For this very reason, stacked and layered memory architecture designs have been proposed over the years, such as 3D Flash (NAND) memory, which aims to address this efficiency limit issue. The lasting problem, however, is implementation, since the new technology will require new infrastructure, and a new market to standardize into.
Optane on this matter will not just be a new type of memory technology. As advertised, it will be an entire system of first-party hardware and software that will be eventually built into the company’s standard line of computing hardware. In other words, it is practically designed to surpass the memory dilemma of other developing combined memory-type technologies.
Where Optane Should Eventually End Up
So, if Intel plans Optane to be an industry standard within the next few years or decades, where will it end up? Will we be shopping for Optane drives instead of RAMs and regular SSDs for our future PC builds? That’s already where it is by default now actually, though not as standardized just yet.
Optane 3D XPoint drives are commercially optimized for larger end applications at the moment. The Optane DC 4800X SSD introduced last March, for example, was advertised as an eventual DRAM replacement for servers. Oh, and this PCI-e version was initially priced at about $1500… for its 375GB version.
As such, it is likely that for the first few decades, Optane will be catered only to enterprise-level clients. Customers, who would definitely need the exponential improvement of the technology for more commercial pursuits. As it seeps into the tech industry, however, the entry-level for the technology is expected to gradually go lower. Perhaps all the way down to the level of your average consumer before the end of the next decade.
In addition, since Optane is meant to directly supersede RAM and memory storage drives, it is still built with current hardware compatibility in mind. That being said, however, future PC motherboards might simply ditch a SATA based drive altogether, in favor of a more advanced and developed Optane drive that can independently function all on its own.