It came as a surprise to the Memory Guy on Monday to receive a press release from Micron indicating that Intel and Micron had decided to end their NAND flash partnership.
This agreement, which was begun in 2006, helped the two companies to aggressively ramp into the NAND flash market by combining their resources. NAND flash makers (as well as DRAM makers) need to make very substantial capital investments to participate in the market, and that’s not easy for a new entrant. Micron at that time was a very small NAND flash maker, and Intel wasn’t involved in the NAND flash market at all, so neither was in a position to succeed. By combining their resources the companies were able to become important contributors to the market.
The agreement initially appeared to be modeled after the very successful joint venture that Toshiba and SanDisk enjoyed. Each company would contribute half of the JV’s capital investment, and the same designs would be used to make both companies’ chips.
Over time Intel found itself in a familiar situation — the company was selling commodity memory chips into a distressed market at a loss. Intel had faced this issue before in the SRAM, DRAM, EPROM, EEPROM, and NOR flash markets, and had exited all of them to focus on its more consistently-profitable processor market.
To extract itself from this predicament a new agreement was formed in which Intel sold its interests in future Singapore fabs to Micron. Intel then slowly exited the NAND flash chip market and used the output from its Micron JV to build SSDs.
Abruptly, in 2015 Intel jumped back into the NAND flash manufacturing business by re-tooling its core logic wafer fab in Dalian China to produce 3D NAND. The company still wanted to sell NAND flash as SSDs, not as stand-alone chips, but it had a plan. The Lehi, Utah fab that was supplying all of Intel’s NAND flash chips would be converted to the manufacture of 3D XPoint Memory. Meanwhile, the conversion of the Dalian fab was certain to please government authorities in China.
Micron and Intel are still partners, and they are working together to produce a lot of 3D XPoint Memory, but the Lehi fab, which was the only IMFT facility producing NAND at cost for Intel, is now manufacturing nothing but 3D XPoint Memory. All of Intel’s captive NAND flash production comes from its own Dalian fab.
Although this appears to be a sudden move, these JV partners have clearly been discussing it for some time. The relationship has been proceeding according to a well-formulated plan.
From the perspective of everyone involved there should be little change: Micron still produces NAND flash at its two Singapore fabs and in Manassas, Virginia, Intel is still ramping its Dalian, China fab, and the two companies’ customers are unlikely to see any change in availability.
As for 3D XPoint Memory, that’s a different agreement, and it appears that both Intel and Micron will continue to work together to aggressively ramp that technology over the course of the next year or two.
By the way, that photo is of me in the IMFT Lehi, Utah fab in 2010, holding a wafer of 25nm planar NAND chips, the leading edge process of its time!