Hardware makers unite to challenge Intel with Gen-Z spec

The Gen-Z architecture will pave the way for a new class of hybrid memory and storage to be installed in computers

Micron 3D Xpoint die

Micron's 3D Xpoint storage will ship in SSDs branded QuantX, an example of the merger of memory and storage.

Credit: Micron

After years of being offered as separate technologies, storage and memory are beginning to merge. It's already happening, for example, with 3D Xpoint, a technology from Intel and Micron that can serve as memory, storage, or both.

Now, a new consortium, called Gen-Z, is out to ease the transition to this new class of storage and memory in computers. It's creating a new specification and architecture that will make it easier to add new forms of non-volatile memory to computers.

Gen-Z will have a new connector, fabric and data transfer protocol. One goal is to create an open standard so new forms of memory can communicate with processors and accelerators in a coherent manner. Gen-Z will also work with SSDs like QuantX from Micron.

Data transfer speeds for the new specification will be tens to hundreds of gigabytes per second, much faster than the speed of the upcoming PCI-Express 4.0, which offers 32GBps. Gen-Z's data-transfer speed will be finalized by the time the specification is released at the end of this year.

The new architecture will be targeted at servers and data centers first; it's not certain whether it will come to PCs. Usually, server technologies ultimately trickle down to PCs.

Gen-Z consortium members include top server companies IBM, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Dell and Lenovo, and storage and memory vendors Samsung, Seagate, Micron, Western Digital and SK Hynix.

Sitting out of the consortium is Intel, which hasn't always played well with other hardware makers on industry standards. The chip maker has nothing to lose by joining the open organization, but seemingly wants to protect its own server technologies.

The Gen-Z architecture and technology can be used both outside and inside the server, said Robert Hormuth, chief technology officer for servers at Dell EMC.

At its highest speed, Gen-Z could be connected as a point-to-point bus in a server enclosure. It could also be used to connect servers, storage and memory arrays in a rack, Hormuth said.

In a way, Gen-Z is designed for the data centers of the future, where memory, storage, and processors will be pooled in separate boxes. Today, servers come with storage, memory and processing in one box, and that's a limitation. It will be possible to decouple them into separate boxes with Gen-Z as a connector. Larger pools of storage, memory and processing can be dedicated to each discrete box. That will help applications like SAP HANA, which relies on in-memory processing.

New forms of DRAM and flash storage replacements like MRAM (magnetoresistive RAM), RRAM (resistive RAM) and PCM (phase change memory) are under development, and Gen-Z will make it easier to add those technologies to servers.  But memory experts expect DRAM to last for up to a decade, and DDR5 is already under development.

But Gen-Z faces challenges. Intel accounts for more than 90 percent of server chip shipments today, and could block the adoption of Gen-Z. Consortium members like ARM and IBM are trying to break that dominance, but have failed. If the specification does gain adoption, however, it could play a role in breaking Intel's server dominance.

Gen-Z said all hardware makers are welcome, and it wouldn't cost Intel anything to join. Intel declined to answer questions on why it wasn't joining Gen-Z.

"We have offered high-performance coherent interconnects and industry standard memory, I/O, and accelerator interfaces on our CPUs for decades. This provides our customers with the best combination of choice, performance, and total cost of ownership," an Intel spokesman said in an email.

The industry-standard technologies Intel is referring to are now aging and being replaced by faster I/O, memory and storage technologies. But considering that Intel dominates servers, it is also driving technology adoption. Intel is also releasing new storage, memory and I/O technologies for servers, which are all proprietary.

Gen-Z is an open specification, and will be compatible with 3D Xpoint, which will form the basis for Intel's upcoming Optane storage and memory products. But Intel is trying to protect its own OmniPath technology, a proprietary architecture and interconnect, which Gen-Z will compete against. Intel is also pushing silicon photonics in order to wire up servers in data centers.

Aside from Intel, all major server, storage and memory makers are banding together to make Gen-Z work. A lack of cooperation between Intel and server makers like Dell and HPE on Gen-Z could create a stalemate of technology adoption in servers and the computing industry at large.