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What if you never had to look at a loading screen again? What if computers booted instantly How To Make Windows Boot Faster Than Ever Before How To Make Windows Boot Faster Than Ever Before One… two… three… how many minutes does it take your computer to start up? Hopefully not more than three, but it wouldn’t surprise me if you said it surpassed that time. The thing is, our... Read More ? Not “fast”, or “in seconds”, but instantly. Recently, Intel announced a new technology that could make all of this possible — and more. It’s called “3D XPoint“, and it’s going to change how you use your computer.

How Memory Works

CPU’s are fast, and hard drives are slow. The clock of an i7 CPU What Is A CPU and What Does It Do? [Technology Explained] What Is A CPU and What Does It Do? [Technology Explained] Read More ticks four billion times per second. Every tick is the opportunity for each core to solve a simple math problem. Together, solving all these math problems is what allows your computer to function from second to second.

The highest end hard drives take about four thousandths of a second to find a piece of data and start reading it out. When the CPU needs a new piece of data for the hard drive, it has to sit around and twiddle its thumbs for four whole milliseconds before the data even starts to trickle in. Solid state drives How Do Solid-State Drives Work? [MakeUseOf Explains] How Do Solid-State Drives Work? [MakeUseOf Explains] Over the past few decades, there has been a considerable amount of work in the field of computer hardware. While computer technology is constantly improving and evolving, rarely do we experience moments where we simply... Read More are an improvement, but not a huge one.

Four milliseconds doesn’t sound like much time, but the CPU could have done one million operations while it was waiting. It’s a huge waste of processor speed — and it happens every single time the CPU needs a new piece of data. To make matters worse, the CPU may need quite a lot of data, and it can take a long time for each individual byte to trickle in, due to the limits of hard drive read speed.

To fix this, engineers implemented what’s known as the cache hierarchy.

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It’s a series of layers of storage that sit between the processor and the hard drive. Each layer is faster than the one before it, but also more expensive (and thus smaller). Each layer stores information that the system thinks the CPU is more likely to need soon. Stuff that’s more likely to be used soon moves into a faster cache layer. Stuff that’s less likely to be used soon is bumped into a slower cache layer.

The idea is that when the CPU needs information, most of the time, it can go and get it from one of the layers of cache, saving a huge amount of time. Even RAM How Much RAM Do You Really Need? How Much RAM Do You Really Need? RAM is like short term memory. The more you multitask, the more you need. Find out how much your computer has, how to get the most out of it, or how to get more. Read More , which can be thought of as the outermost layer of cache, is about 1500 times faster than the hard drive, so every data request caught by the caching system at any level saves a huge amount of wasted time.

This caching system is how nearly all computers have worked for a long time. It works pretty well. The computer is still running at a fraction of its potential, but it’s many times faster than it would otherwise be.

The main downside is that the fast memory of the cache hierarchy is “volatile” — meaning that it requires power to keep data in it. That means that every time you power down your computer, you lose all the value of the cache structure, and the system has to start from scratch. That’s why booting up your machine is so slow.

There are similar problems when you try to load a bunch of data at once and none of it is cached. That’s why Photoshop takes roughly a million years to load How To Make Photoshop Faster On Slower Computers How To Make Photoshop Faster On Slower Computers Read More , even on a fast machine. All of this engineering happened because hard drives are so painfully slow, and it’s still not enough to fully solve the problem.

The 3D XPoint memory technology has the potential to turn the question around on us: what if hard drives didn’t have to be slow?

A New Approach

Intel’s new storage technology is unlike both hard drives and RAM. While Intel is coy about the exact materials in use, we know that it stores data using physical changes in material that alter their resistance, something that sounds reminiscent of the memristors we keep hearing about.

We also know that the physical layout is very simple, making it about 10 times denser than existing RAM, cheaper to manufacturer, and about a thousand times faster than the best solid state drives — just a little slower than RAM itself.

It’s non-volatile, it’s cheap, and it’s fast. It’s sort of a hybrid of a traditional hard drive and RAM — it can serve the role of either or both. Those of you who have ever used a RAM drive What Is A RAM Disk, And How You Can Set One Up What Is A RAM Disk, And How You Can Set One Up Solid state hard drives aren’t the first non-mechanical storage to appear in consumer PCs. RAM has been used for decades, but primarily as a short-term storage solution. The fast access times of RAM makes it... Read More know how powerful an idea that is.

In the long run, properly scaled up and with all the kinks worked out, this technology could be cheaper to create than traditional solid state drives, allowing it to completely replace the hard drive. This would let your RAM and your hard drive be the same device (perhaps with traditional RAM serving as an extra layer of cache). That would fundamentally change the way we use computers.

Booting up and opening programs would go a thousand times faster. Your computer could easily save its state if you lost power. Smartphones and laptops could save power by entirely switching themselves off when idle, extending their idle lifespan into months or years.

It would also be a huge shift for big data applications, potentially allowing much faster speeds from the same processors, putting us years ahead of schedule. As we reach the fundamental limits of silicon etching technology What Is Moore's Law, And What Does It Have To Do With You? [MakeUseOf Explains] What Is Moore's Law, And What Does It Have To Do With You? [MakeUseOf Explains] Bad luck has nothing to do with Moore's Law. If that is the association you had, you are confusing it with Murphy's Law. However, you were not far off because Moore's Law and Murphy's Law... Read More , these sorts of advances are going to be more important to continue to push the cutting edge.

Commercialization

The new storage technology is expected to be commercialized in 2016, both for industrial and consumer applications. There’s no word on price yet, but a safe bet is that it’ll be fairly pricey initially, due to the cost of setting up manufacturing for a new kind of microchip and the need to recoup development costs. However, its fundamentally simple architecture implies that it could become quite cheap in the relatively near future.

Excited about this technology? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Image Credits: Man Shocked Via Shutterstock

  1. SlashBot
    August 24, 2016 at 2:33 pm

    Intel is very business-savvy. They won't be giving this thing away, even if it were to cost them nothing to make. They will have the patent on this technology, which gives them 17 years to milk the cash cow before anyone else can make this device. Bet that even now, in 2016, SDD prices will not exactly "tumble" but continue their usual slow decline. Unless a competitive product becomes available from yet another manufacturer!

  2. Michael Weldon
    September 6, 2015 at 11:00 pm

    Totally agree with you about the whole issue of boot-up times..! Which is why I run 'Puppy' Linux as my main, day-to-day OS. The whole thing runs in RAM.....so it's a LOT faster than most OS'es to start with.

    We all know that Puppy was set up to run like this because it was designed to make older hardware still viable on a daily basis. Most of this older hardware is usually Pentium III generation, or possibly P4; usually less than, or up to 1 GB of RAM, and often quite small, slow hard drives.

    My machine is 10 yrs old. But it was a top-end machine for its time. It's been heavily upgraded in recent years; 2 GHz single-core Athlon 64 to 2.4 GHz X2 dual-core; 1 GB DDR1 RAM to 4 GB RAM; and the original 160 GB WD Caviar 'Black' HDD has been uprated for a SanDisk 256 GB SSD. The only reason Puppy takes 30-35 seconds to boot is because I have it set to 'fsck' the file-system at start-up; probably unnecessary on what is a 'read-only' file system, but I like to make sure.....otherwise it would be up-and-running in about 15 seconds, tops.

    Chrome is ready to go in less than 5 seconds.....and most apps are only a second or so behind that. And even PhotoShop CS2 running under Wine is ready to go in about 11 or 12 secinds! But I think the biggest improvement came from increasing the CPU's HyperLink bus speed from 800 MHz up to its max of 1 GHz; that 25% increase has made a BIG difference, believe me.

    So I shall be very interested to see where this new Intel technology leads to. Thanks for the blog; most informative, as usual!

  3. Bniedem Malti
    August 9, 2015 at 6:23 am

    Great idea but it is bound to be way to expensive. My gut feeling is that it will take a long time to come down in price to be affordable by the average home user. I hope I'm wrong!

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