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Intel, Micron end 3D XPoint memory joint development

The declaration that Intel and Micron are ending their 3D XPoint joint development raises doubt over the future of the nonvolatile memory technology.

“Seeing this relationship go in separate ways casts a shadow on the future of 3D XPoint,” said Jim Handy, general director and semiconductor analyst at Objective Analysis. “This would not be a confidence booster for anyone who would be buying it.”

Intel and Micron position 3D XPoint memory as a new tier between dynamic RAM (DRAM) and NAND flash. They have developed 3D XPoint memory together, while working independently to deliver products based on the technology. But Micron has not shipped anything based on 3D XPoint memory yet, and industry analysts said Intel’s 3D XPoint Optane products have produced little revenue.

Intel and Micron issued a press release this week, saying they would end their 3D XPoint partnership in 2019 after they complete work on the second generation of the technology.

The vendors said they would independently pursue any development beyond the second generation so they could optimize it for their respective product and business needs. Intel and Micron made a similar declaration earlier this year with respect to their joint development of 3D NAND flash technology. The vendors said they would work independently on flash after they complete third-generation 3D NAND.

3D XPoint advantages

Their 3D XPoint memory technology promises significantly lower latency and greater endurance than NAND flash memory, which has become prevalent in the data storage industry. But some analysts envision the key form factor for 3D XPoint could be dual in-line memory modules. DIMMS can better exploit the technology’s performance advantage over NVMe-based SSDs that use a PCI Express bus.

This would not be a confidence booster for anyone who would be buying it.
Jim Handygeneral director and semiconductor analyst at Objective Analysis

However, Handy said Intel and Micron are behind schedule in introducing 3D XPoint DIMMs. Whether the delay is due to demand or technical issues, he said it is causing concern for those interested in the technology.

“I have always really loved the XPoint idea and how it fits into the computer architecture. It’s a thing of great beauty, because it’s faster than flash and cheaper than DRAM. It just comes down to whether or not it can be executed,” Handy said.

Other analysts remain more optimistic about the technology’s long-term success.

Jeff Janukowicz, a research vice president at IDC, said interest remains high for 3D XPoint memory in both nonvolatile memory express (NVMe) SSDs and DIMMs. Because of product delays, he said customer adoption so far has focused on niche applications. Still, IDC expects momentum to increase for 3D XPoint, with broader market acceptance still likely a year away.

Joseph Unsworth, a research vice president at Gartner, added in an email, “We do expect 3D XPoint to play an increasingly important role in 2020 and beyond.”

Tim Stammers, a senior analyst at 451 Research, said the lack of market adoption of Intel Optane devices doesn’t mean the technology has no chance of ever succeeding.

“Intel has said publicly that it expects 3D XPoint to sell better in NVDIMMs than in NVMe drives,” Stammers said. “Those 3D XPoint NVDIMMs will not begin shipping until later this year. Also, price is key to any product. And if manufacturing volumes and yields increase, Intel could lower the price of 3D XPoint-powered devices.”

Intel and Micron representatives declined requests for an interview. According to their press release, Intel and Micron expect to wrap up their joint development of second-generation 3D XPoint in the first half of 2019. The vendors indicated they will continue to manufacture memory chips based on the technology at the IM Flash Technologies facility in Lehi, Utah.

Intel struggles to sell Optane

This week’s Intel-Micron news broke amid reports that Intel has struggled to sell its Optane products, according to a Wells Fargo Security research note. Micron CFO David Zinsner said during a June earnings call that his company had sold “very little” 3D XPoint to Intel and potentially might not sell any to its partner this quarter. On that same call, Micron CEO Sanjay Mehrotra claimed Micron is on track to introduce its first 3D XPoint memory product in late 2019, with “meaningful revenue” in 2020.

Handy said Intel must produce “an awful lot of product” to achieve its goal with 3D XPoint.

“They’re in a lot of trouble from the standpoint of the economies of scale — the thing that’s going to cause their prices to go down to where they need to be,” he said.

Intel unveiled its first product based on 3D XPoint in March 2017 under the Optane brand name. The 375 GB Optane P4800X is an NVMe-based PCIe add-in card designed for data center use, but the company promised additional capacities and form factors.

In October, Intel launched the first Optane SSD for desktop PC and workstations, claiming its 900P Series would boost 3D rendering, complex simulation and gaming applications. The company followed up in March of this year with the Optane SSD 800P in the M.2 form factor that supports the PCIe 3.0 interface. The 800P targets system boot, application loading and multitasking in desktop PCs and laptops.

On the memory front, Intel made available an Optane memory module last year as an add-in computer component at capacities of 16 GB and 32 GB. Intel said Dell’s XPS and Alienware gaming desktop PCs with seventh-generation Intel core processors use Optane memory.

More recently, Intel began sampling Optane DC persistent memory to enable data center users to minimize latency by keeping data close to the processor. The company said Optane DC persistent memory would ship in late 2018 to select customers and become broadly available next year in capacities up to 512 GB per module.

Persistent memory modules have the potential to drive the sort of breakthrough performance that Intel and Micron originally envisioned for 3D XPoint technology. The vendors initially said the technology could be up to 1,000 times faster than NAND flash.

But Intel’s Optane SSDs delivered a performance boost of only 5x to 8x over the company’s standard NVMe-based PCIe SSDs. Many analysts, in turn, expressed skepticism that Optane SSDs would catch fire, given their price premium at the time and limited performance boost due to the PCIe bus choke point.

“3D XPoint’s brightest future is in the data center,” Gartner’s Unsworth said.

“There’s a role for a new nonvolatile memory tier, but to meet this need, it requires the ability to scale in order to come cheaper, industry support and application optimizations in order to fully exploit the advantages,” he wrote in an email.

‘Defining moment’ for Seattle as Microsoft, Amazon, others support Special Olympics USA Games

Michel Kozoris raises his arms after competing in the Special Olympics World Summer Games in 2011. (Photo via Special Olympics)

Seattle-area tech companies are making a statement about building an inclusive workforce as the city hosts one of the largest sporting events in the region’s history.

More than 3,000 athletes will arrive in the Emerald City next week for the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games and compete across 14 sports. The event, now in its 50th year, not only spotlights the talent of athletes with intellectual disabilities, but perhaps more importantly promotes inclusion beyond the playing field.

“In many ways, this can and should be a defining moment for the Seattle community,” Microsoft President Brad Smith said in an interview with GeekWire. “It’s a great opportunity to show the nation that we aspire to be a real city and region of inclusion.”

This group raised a Special Olympics flag atop the Space Needle in Seattle on Friday morning. From left to right: Beth Knox, CEO, Special Olympics USA Games; Allen Stone,singer/songwriter; Devon Adelman, Special Olympics athlete; Brad Smith, Microsoft President; and Taye Diggs, singer and author.

Microsoft is the presenting sponsor of the games. The Redmond, Wash.-based tech giant is a long-time supporter of the Special Olympics through donations of software, technical assistance and even cell phones over the years.

But the company is stepping up even more with the games in its backyard this year. It’s a reflection of Microsoft’s broader focus on accessibility — one that got away from the company until Satya Nadella took over as CEO in 2014, Smith said. “We lost our industry leadership position in terms of meeting the needs of people with disabilities,” he said.

That renewed commitment has helped spur a larger culture shift across the company, Smith said. He pointed to products like the new Xbox Adaptive Controller and the company’s $25 million AI for Accessibility Initiative as examples.

More than 2,000 employees will be volunteering at the games next week. Microsoft’s Xbox division is also hosting the first-ever video game tournament at the USA Games.

“If you think about our mission of empowering everyone, then fundamentally we have to do a good job of meeting the needs of the billion-plus people on the planet that have some kind of disability, temporary or permanent,” Smith added. He and Nadella will speak at the Opening Ceremony on Sunday at Husky Stadium with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

Devon Adelman, a Special Olympics USA Games athlete and ambassador, speaks at Microsoft’s Ability Summit in May. (Photo via Microsoft)

Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, and other companies are participating in the first-ever job fair at a Special Olympics USA Games this year called “Journey of Employment,” where athletes will gain career advice and meet with potential employers. It’s designed to raise awareness for a talent pool that organizers say is often overlooked.

“These partners are committed to creating inclusive work cultures and to helping improve the unemployment rate for people with disabilities,” said Special Olympics USA Games CEO Beth Knox.

The unemployment rate of people with disabilities was 9.2 percent in 2017, double that of the rate for those without disabilities, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And even with government support, nearly 29 percent of disabled, working-age Americans live below the poverty level, according to U.S. Census data. That line is set at $12,082 for one person.

Artists known as “They Drift” created a mural that was placed on Amazon’s campus in Seattle as part of the “Choose to Include” campaign for the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games. (Photo via Amazon)

Amazon will also be heavily involved next week. The e-commerce giant is sponsoring the closing ceremony near its campus in South Lake Union and will have more than 400 employees volunteering throughout the games. It is also donating boxed lunches for athletes throughout the week via FareStart and launched a neighborhood restaurant campaign this month called “Choose to Include.”

Amazon says it is committed to inclusive hiring. It runs an Alternative Workforce Supplier Program that identifies people with disabilities for hire in the company’s fulfillment centers. The company also partners with Northwest Center, a Seattle-based nonprofit supporting mentally and physically disabled adults and children that provides employees to Amazon. Many of its products and software services offer accessibility features, too.

“At Amazon, diversity and inclusion are an inherent part of our culture,” said Beth Galetti, Amazon’s senior vice president of human resources. “The unique talents, experiences, and backgrounds of our employees are the driving force which enables us to build and innovate on behalf of millions of customers around the world.”

Amazon’s Spheres glow purple in Seattle this past March as the company joined others in marking 100 days until the Special Olympics USA Games begin in the city. (Amazon Photo / Jordan Stead)

Bellevue, Wash.-based wireless carrier T-Mobile and coffee giant Starbucks are getting involved as well. T-Mobile, which has more than 7,000 members in its Access for Disabilities Network, created a text-to-give program that enables donations for the games.

Starbucks has hundreds of employees who are volunteering at the event. For the past three years, Starbucks has received a 100 percent score on the Disability Equality Index survey sponsored by the American Association of People with Disabilities and the U.S. Business Leadership Network.

“Going forward, I would like in my lifetime to see where you hire somebody – a barista who has autism and it goes viral and it’s on the “Ellen” show – that that doesn’t get the attention anymore. That it just is commonplace,” Starbucks manager of Equal Opportunity Initiatives Marthalee Galeota said in 2016. “We have one world – one accessible world where disability is adaptability, it’s humanity, it’s innovation and it’s our global responsibility.”

Smith, Microsoft’s president, said the tech industry should consider how products take into account the needs of people with disabilities, while pursuing new breakthroughs that meet their needs in new ways.

He also said employers should involve people with disabilities in the creation of products. One phrase used in the community is “nothing should be created for us, without us.”

“The key to long-term product improvement for this important community is actually to do a much better job of bringing them into our workforce and making them a key part of our overall ecosystem,” Smith said.

You can get tickets to the USA Games or sign up to volunteer here.