Kioxia and Western Digital want to take on Intel Optane with XL-FLASH

There is a new player in the persistent memory market, courtesy of Kioxia (formerly Toshiba) and Western Digital. And while enterprise customers will be the first to see the benefits, it might push Intel and Samsung to improve their own solutions, which will ultimately end up in consumer-grade hardware we can all use in our own PCs.
Intel’s Optane tech is about to get the competition it needs to evolve quicker, and it comes in the form of XL-FLASH. So far only Samsung’s Z-NAND hasn’t been able to shake things up, but Kioxia and Western Digital set out to create an alternative that can serve the growing storage needs of enterprise customers and data centers.

In essence, XL-FLASH is similar to Optane in that it sits between NAND and RAM in the memory hierarchy chart, combining the benefits of both technologies into something that strikes a balance between cost and performance. This can be used for both caching and pure storage devices, but a more important characteristic of XL-FLASH is that it’s designed to be compatible with both Intel and AMD platforms.

Optane is a little too pricey when compared to flash-based storage, and so is Samsung’s Z-NAND, which is really just lower-latency, SLC NAND storage that offers somewhat better endurance, power efficiency, sequential performance and game load performance when compared to Intel’s offering. Both are still several times more expensive than NAND-based solutions.

This is also an area that Kioxia and Western Digital have considered in their design of XL-FLASH. The two companies used BiCS FLASH 3D flash memory as a starting point for the new tech, which means they were able to achieve relatively lower cost when compared to Optane and DRAM. The idea here is that stacking memory cells on 16 planes achieves higher density while the simplified architecture with shorter bit lines and word lines enable read latencies of around 5 microseconds and program times of 7 microseconds.

Kioxia and Western Digital are looking to use XL-FLASH first as SLC cache for their high-density, QLC NAND SSDs at first, but they’re also exploring ways to make MLC versions of the new storage technology, as well as DIMM solutions for the data center. Eventually, this will trickle down to consumer SSDs we can buy for gaming and workstation PCs.