Micron has announced that it will buy Intel’s stake in IM Flash Technologies, a joint venture between the two companies that’s been responsible for a number of high-profile technologies from both companies. Hybrid memory cube, Optane (aka 3D XPoint) and the Crystal Well SDRAM that Intel mounts on its highest-end integrated GPU solutions are all products of the same joint agreement between the two companies. But the writing has been on the wall for the agreement. Intel and Micron have dissolved their joint agreement to develop NAND flash technologies and announced that they would no longer jointly develop Optane, either, after finishing the second-generation design. IM Flash is the last jointly-owned foundry and is entirely dedicated to Optane production, which will make Micron Intel’s sole Optane supplier.
Anandtech points out that previous agreements between the companies will keep the price Intel pays for Optane steady for a year after the deal closes, after which new price contracts will have to be negotiated. That’s estimated to happen between mid-2020 and early 2021 depending on when the deal finalizes, and Micron has plans to introduce its own competing products based on 3D XPoint as well as new emerging memory technologies.
One potential reason the firms have decided to dissolve their partnership is that they may be eyeing different markets for the memory technology, with Intel wanting to push into servers and enterprise computing, while Micron wants to emphasize Optane as a solution for smaller applications that require smaller dies. And one reason for the long lead time between when Micron will buy the fab and when Intel has to negotiate its contracts could be a deliberate on-ramp for Intel to ramp up its own Optane manufacturing.
Optane is in an interesting position right now. For general workloads, it isn’t always clearly faster than an SSD — with the understanding that in some specific workloads and scenarios, it’s considerably faster than ordinary solid state drives. Intel has announced major plans for the standard, including the ability to use Optane in DIMM slots as a RAM replacement, and while we were very critical of an advertising change that’s seen Optane listed as a DRAM equivalent, the technology overall seems to have promise. And while Intel’s marketing has at times been a touch hyperbolic on the benefits, it also seems to have genuinely commercialized a new type of storage memory.
It’s easier to forget how rare that is, but it really doesn’t happen very often. We’ve used magnetic media for decades in various formats (tape, floppy disks, hard drives), optical media since the early 1990s (CD-ROM, DVD, Blu-ray) and NAND flash at the consumer level since ~2008, with NAND becoming more widespread over the past decade. And Optane does have reliability benefits over NAND in theory, though it’s not clear how much those benefits matter in the majority of on-the-ground scenarios (most people don’t exceed their SSDs lifetime write cycle limit, for example).
Intel has stated that it does not expect the Micron purchase to have any impact on the bring-up of future Optane products.
Now Read: PC OEMs Are Selling Laptops With Optane Cache Drives and Claiming It’s Memory, Gigabyte Now Baking 32GB of Optane Directly Into Z370 Motherboards, and Intel Announces New Optane DC Persistent Memory