Toshiba’s new 3D storage tech equals bigger, faster memory chips

While Microsoft flashed new technologies and announcements during its Build 2017 developer conference in Seattle, Dell had a conference of its own this week in Las Vegas — Dell EMC World 2017. It was during this event that Toshiba demonstrated its latest flash storage technology, which is capable of cramming 64GB of data on a single chip.

More specifically, Toshiba demonstrated a third-generation BiCS flash memory technology made up of 64 layers. The traditional “2D” flash NAND memory that’s found in SSDs, USB drives, and the like increase storage capacity by adding cells horizontally like buildings on a city block. Eventually, the capacity of a storage device is bound by physical limits.

Toshiba’s “3D” memory builds vertically, like a skyscraper, providing 64 “floors” of office-like storage cells. In turn, each cell can store three bits of data, thus a single chip can hold 512 gigabits (Gb) of information, which translates into 64 gigabytes (GB). Throw multiple chips into an SSD, and that drive has a crazy-high storage capacity.

“The future of SSDs is 3D,” said Greg Wong, founder and principal analyst of Forward Insights. “3D flash memory enables the production of higher-capacity and more cost-effective SSDs to better meet a variety of requirements across the consumer and enterprise spaces.”

Stacked flash memory isn’t anything new, but it’s becoming more mainstream. Flash memory makers typically slap special names on their 3D NAND technology, such as Intel’s 3D XPoint brand, Samsung’s V-NAND brand, and Toshiba’s BiCS brand, which is short for Bit Cost Scaling.

Ultimately, all three achieve the same purpose of scaling storage capacity vertically while using slightly different techniques. Toshiba promises high speed due to the way data is shoved into each storage cell. It also promises high reliability based on how each cell is spread apart to prevent interference from neighboring cells.

Another benefit of BiCS is power reduction. Because the storage cells support an extremely fast “single-shot” programming sequence, the overall chip consumes less power. And standard hard drives consume more power in general because they include spinning magnetic storage discs and disc readers to read and write data. Flash storage has no moving parts, of course.

The 64-layer BiCS flash chip demonstrated during Dell’s convention resided in a new Toshiba XG Series SSD. This was the first public showing for the drive, which will be a launch pad for this latest BiCS tech.  The drive connected to its host laptop via an internal NVMe PCI Express interface packing around 1TB of storage using 64GB and 32GB chips.

“The new XG Series SSD is an ideal platform to launch the 64-layer flash memory, due to the product’s broad adoption, maturity, and robustness, honed over multiple generations of PCIe/NVMe client SSD product releases,” the company said.

Toshiba plans to move all client, data center, and enterprise SSDs to the new 64-layer BiCS flash memory once the XG Series SSDs hit the market. For now, Toshiba is sampling the chip to equipment manufacturers.