Why your customers need 3D NAND

By Peter Krass

Who needs 3D NAND technology? Just your customers.

That’s because technologies including the cloud, big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) already have your customers storing, processing, and sharing a whole lot more data. Those data requirements are only going to increase.

To be sure, conventional 2D NAND-based Flash drives are a great technology for storing data. They’re faster than traditional hard disk drives, and more resistant to mechanical shock. That’s why they’re widely used in USB dongles, digital cameras and smartphone memory cards.

But conventional 2D NAND chips are now pretty much as dense as possible. In other words, given a fixed footprint, they can’t store any more data than they already do.

The solution? Build vertically. In essence, that’s what 3D NAND does. Just as a big-city skyscraper can hold many times more people than a single-story house, so too can a 3D NAND chip hold many times the memory of a 2D chip. And it does so in essentially the same way: by arranging memory cells in stacked layers.

The 3D approach is so much better, in fact, that 2D supplies have become very tight. Suppliers, rather than ramping up 2D manufacturing capacity, are moving on. So are your customers.

Intel’s Approach

That brings us to Intel, birthplace of Moore’s Law. The company is hard at work on an approach to 3D NAND technology that scales quickly to approach very high storage densities.

Intel’s current 3D NAND technology stacks 32 layers (more accurately, tiers) on a single chip that measures less than 1 mm square. Looking into the future, Intel believes it will eventually be able to manufacture 3D NAND chips with literally hundreds of tiers.

Intel has also figured out how to get more bits into a single memory cell. Previously, 2D NAND memory assigned 1 bit to each cell. Intel raised that to 2 bits with its multilevel cell (MLC) technology, and the company’s first 3D NAND SSDs launched with support for MLC technology. But with the recent introduction of the Intel® SSD DC P4500 Series, Intel raised it to 3 bits per cell. 

From 1 to 3 bits may not sound like much, but when you multiply that over 32 tiers of cells, it makes a real difference. Intel’s NAND drives now store up to 4 terabytes, and you know that will be increasing in the future.

Intel’s 3D NAND tech offers high capacity, great efficiency.[f:Intel's measurements comparing Intel 32-tier TLC NAND die vs. Samsung's 32-tier TLS NAND die. ] [f:Intel data based on internal analysis, drawing on papers from the 2017 IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Conference.]

Intel also believes it has a better idea for the peripheral circuitry on the NAND chips. These components typically sit on the perimeter of the memory array. Instead, Intel has figured out a way to tuck the periphery under the array. The company likens this approach to an under-building parking garage. Again, moving this circuitry may sound like a small thing. But according to Intel, the move significantly increases memory density.

Price is the last barrier for NAND. A high-end SSD is still more expensive on a per-MB basis than a comparable hard drive. But NAND prices have dropped by as much as 40 percent in just the last year. Price parity is coming.

So who needs 3D NAND? Just everyone.