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Will 3D XPoint kill flash and leave disk (and tape) standing?

With the recent announcement of 3D XPoint memory by Intel and Micron, there are, inevitably, more questions than answers.

On the one hand there is the big question for computing architectures at a general level. IE, what will become of the current paradigm of CPU plus RAM and (tiers of) storage if a new medium 1,000x faster and with adequate endurance arises?

On the face of things 3D XPoint will make RAM redundant in compute architectures.

But what will it mean for enterprise storage hardware architectures?

3D XPoint will deal a heavy, possibly fatal, blow to existing NAND flash products. With the Intel-Micron brainchild’s 1,000x performance premium and equal or better lifetime endurance, NAND flash’s days are numbered. But we knew that anyway (and there are other possible successors).

It’s the timing of that eclipse that is currently un-knowable, being dependent on the cost and availability of 3D XPoint. And at present we know nothing certain of either except that the first products are likely to ship in 2016. But will they be ready for mainstream enterprise adoption?

On both counts it’s doubtful, for some time at least. We will see 3D XPoint in the much more voluminous consumer market at first. And in fact it’s the fabrication plant economies of scale that come with consumer product adoption that help bring the price down to levels acceptable to the relatively minority use case of enterprise storage.

So, for some time 3D XPoint will likely be an exotic and costly but rapid storage medium, and so available in small quantities to enterprise storage and server hardware makers. In that case, what will be it’s role?

Probably more or less that of RAM right now. As a fast access cache or tier – in server or array – on top of NAND flash and possibly spinning disk.

But that phase will pass and as the cost comes down and the ubiquity of 3D XPoint, its clones or functional equivalents rises so the process and economies of silicon production probably mean flash will suffer a relatively sudden death.

Ironically, that might leave spinning disk — and tape! — still standing after flash has died, with a niche but valuable role at the glacial end of archival storage.

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