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Intel’s Reinvention of the Hard Drive Could Make All Kinds of Computers Faster

A new kind of hard drive available next year will be able to move your data many times faster than the best today.
August 18, 2015

Computers from laptops to supercomputers could get a major speed boost next year, thanks to a new kind of hard drive developed by Intel. Intel Optane drives, as they will be called, are based on a new way to store digital data that can operate as much as 1,000 times as fast as the flash memory technology inside hard drives, memory sticks, and mobile devices today.

The first Optane drives won’t be that much faster than today’s data storage. An early prototype shown by Intel at its annual developer conference in San Francisco on Tuesday was only about seven times as fast as a top-of-the-range flash disk drive available today. However, even that level of performance could have significant effects on the capabilities of consumer and corporate computers, and Optane drives may perform better by the time they hit the market in 2016.

The sluggish speed of data storage compared to the pace at which processors can work on data has become a significant bottleneck on the capabilities of computers. Several large computing and chip companies have invested heavily in promising new data storage technologies, but none has yet borne fruit. Intel’s Optane drives are based on a technology called 3D Xpoint, developed in collaboration with the memory chip company Micron.

Intel says the technology is affordable enough that Optane drives will be made available next year for uses ranging from large corporate data centers to lightweight laptops. Rob Crooke, a general manager on Intel’s memory project, predicted that they would improve gaming, supercomputers, and data analysis. “We expect to see breakthroughs in personalized medicine, in business analytics to allow companies, cities, and maybe countries to run more efficiently,” he said.

The flash memory chips that are the fastest way to store data today use a grid of clumps of electrons trapped on silicon to represent the 0s and 1s of digital data. A 3D Xpoint chip instead has a grid formed from metal wires layered over one another; data is stored by using electricity to change the arrangement of atoms inside material trapped at each junction of the grid. Just like flash, 3D Xpoint chips hold onto data even when powered down. They can’t currently store data as densely, but Intel says the Xpoint grids can be stacked vertically, providing a route to storing more data on one chip.

Intel hasn’t released much more detail about 3D Xpoint, but its basic design is similar to what’s at the heart of an ambitious project by Hewlett-Packard to use devices called memristors to create faster data storage and new computer designs (see “Machine Dreams”). Other large companies as well as startups are working on similar technology (see “Faster, Denser, Memory Challenges both DRAM and Flash”). However, progress has been slower than anticipated and Intel is the only company promising complete hard drives on the market next year. After difficulties with its own memory technology, HP recently scaled back its memristor plans (see “HP Puts the Future of Computing on Hold”).

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