What if you never had to look at a loading screen again? What if computers booted instantly? 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 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 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.
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, 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, 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 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, these sorts of advances are going to be more important to continue to push the cutting edge.
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!
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