Ar­guably, the fu­ture is al­ready here. The two most promis­ing can­di­dates for tech­nol­ogy to re­place NAND flash as the go-to non-volatile mem­ory tech­nol­ogy are thus far In­tel’s 3D Xpoint (de­vel­oped with Mi­cron) and Sam­sung’s Z-NAND.

Both are avail­able to­day in real, buyable SSDs. How­ever, nei­ther has achieved any­thing like main­stream pric­ing and they re­main largely tar­geted at high-end com­mer­cial ap­pli­ca­tions.

3D Xpoint, which forms the ba­sis of In­tel’s Op­tane drives, is a truly rev­o­lu­tion­ary de­par­ture from NAND flash. In­stead of cre­at­ing mem­ory cells out of tiny ca­pac­i­tors as per NAND, 3D Xpoint is a re­sis­tance-based tech­nol­ogy that uses bulk prop­erty change to the cell ma­te­rial to al­ter its re­sis­tance level and so record a mem­ory state.

So, how does Sam­sung’s Z-NAND com­pare? Like 3D Xpoint, the big sell­ing point is low la­tency rather than a leap in se­quen­tial through­put. Sam­sung says its re­cently an­nounced sec­ond-gen Z-NAND SSD, the SZ1735, of­fers five times lower la­tency than the best con­ven­tional NAND drives, and gets within spit­ting dis­tance of 3D Xpoint. For com­par­i­son, Z-NAND is rated at 12–20μs (mi­crosec­onds) for read la­tency, while 3D Xpoint achieves 10μs.

How does Z-NAND do it? Sam­sung is keep­ing quiet. It’s known to be a de­riv­a­tive of SLC NAND, per­haps with shorter bit­lines and word­lines. With so lit­tle to go on, it’s hard to be sure how the com­pe­ti­tion will play out. It’s not even clear the ex­tent to which Z-NAND is a pro­pri­etary tech based on in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty that can’t legally be copied.

That’s the great­est worry re­gard­ing 3D Xpoint—that In­tel will slow-ball de­vel­op­ment if it ever gains a sig­nif­i­cant ad­van­tage. But even if Z-NAND does end up be­ing a Sam­sung-only tech, Sam­sung ver­sus In­tel will drive the in­dus­try for­ward faster than just one of them dom­i­nat­ing the mar­ket for next-gen non-volatile mem­ory, that’s for sure.

Can Sam­sung’s Z-NAND take the fight to In­tel’sOp­tane?

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