Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Intelligent Machines

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.

The speed at which data storage can operate has become a bottleneck on the performance of computers – limiting what they can do for us.

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”).

Want to go ad free? No ad blockers needed.

Become an Insider
Already an Insider? Log in.
More from Intelligent Machines

Artificial intelligence and robots are transforming how we work and live.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    Print + Digital Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    Technology Review PDF magazine archive, including articles, images, and covers dating back to 1899

    10% Discount to MIT Technology Review events and MIT Press

    Ad-free website experience

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.