Intel and Micron have jointly announced shipping of the industry's first 3D NAND flash modules to feature quad-level cell (QLC) technology - a move which boosts data density by a third over triple-level cell (TLC).

Where a traditional storage medium uses cells containing a single bit - literally a switch which can be on or off, true or false, zero or one - multi-level cell (MLC) technology began by offering cells capable of storing two bits, doubling the capacity per module. These were soon followed by triple-level cells (TLCs) which could hold three bits, increasing capacities by 50 percent over MLC, and then by quad-level cells (QLCs) which increased capacities by a third again.

Intel and Micron, working together as the joint venture IM Flash, have now taken QLC and applied it to their 64-layer second-generation 3D NAND manufacturing technology. The result: NAND flash memory dies capable of storing a terabit (1Tb) of data - the highest density yet available.

'With introduction of 64-layer 4bits/cell NAND technology, we are achieving 33 percent higher array density compared to TLC, which enables us to produce the first commercially available 1 terabit die in the history of semiconductors,' explains Micron executive vice president for technology development Scott DeBoer, during the companies' joint unveiling of the parts.

'Commercialisation of 1Tb 4bits/cell is a big milestone in NVM [non-volatile memory] history and is made possible by numerous innovations in technology and design that further extend the capability of our Floating Gate 3D NAND technology,' adds Intel vice president for NVM technology RV Giridhar. 'The move to 4bits/cell enables compelling new operating points for density and cost in data centre and client storage.'

At the same time, IM Flash has also announced commercialisation of its third-generation 3D NAND technology which increases the number of layers from 64 to 96. Thus far, though, the 96-layer third-generation variant is not available in QLC but is instead launching using TLC technology.

Micron is the first of the two companies to announce a shipping product featuring the 64-layer 3D NAND QLC dies: The 5210 Ion family of 2.5" SATA-connected drives, which the company is aiming at the data centre market. Pricing has not yet been confirmed, but is expected to be high given the company's launch capacities of 1.92TB up to 7.68TB. 'Strategic enablement partners and customers' can get their hands on the drives now, Micron has confirmed, while mass-market availability is scheduled for later this year.

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