It's not often that a disruptive hardware or chip technology upends a multi-billion dollar industry by "striking a balance" between two existing, widely-used technologies. Typically, the disruptive solution either provides much better performance and/or novel features relative to an established one at a higher (but acceptable) price, or carries a much lower cost in exchange for inferior (but acceptable) specs.

But the sales pitch for Intel (INTC)  and Micron's (MU) 3D XPoint (pronounced '3D cross-point') next-gen memory revolves around the technology's ability to to provide a "middle ground" between ubiquitous DRAM and nearly-ubiquitous NAND flash memory. Investors shouldn't expect giant sales in the near-term, but over the long run, 3D XPoint could make a big splash in several memory end-markets -- including some that are very different from the ones that it's initially targeting.

Intel just launched the Optane P4800X, its first 3D XPoint solid-state drive (SSD). The P4800X, meant for servers, plugs into a high-speed PCI Express (PCIe) port, much the same way that many traditional NAND flash SSDs do. But in addition to acting as a substitute for NAND for storage, the drive can also act as a main memory source in tandem with a server's DRAM.

The P4800X can pull off this trick because 3D XPoint is far faster than NAND. Intel and Micron have claimed the former's latency -- the minimum time needed for a bit of data to be transferred -- is one-thousandth that of the latter's, both for reading and writing data. It's also said to provides 1,000 times the endurance.

3D XPoint's latency is still 10 times that of DRAM, but for many applications this is more than offset by the fact that the memory is far denser and cheaper, and (like NAND, but unlike DRAM) retains its data when power is lost. Whereas server DRAM modules currently top out at 128GB, the first P4800X drive has 375GB of capacity.

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