The Korea Herald


[KH Explains] Samsung-SK rivalry heats up for future chips

CXL memory considered 'game changer' in processing massive data for ChatGPT, autonomous cars

By Jie Ye-eun

Published : Oct. 24, 2023 - 15:52

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A digital display representing an AI-powered neural quantum processor in the Samsung Electronics hall at the IFA trade fair in Berlin, Germany, on Aug. 31. (Bloomberg) A digital display representing an AI-powered neural quantum processor in the Samsung Electronics hall at the IFA trade fair in Berlin, Germany, on Aug. 31. (Bloomberg)

Competition is heating up between South Korean chip rivals Samsung Electronics and SK hynix to take the lead in the Compute Express Link, or CXL, technology amid its ongoing High Bandwidth Memory chip supremacy war. Although the market is still at the nascent stage, the two global DRAM leaders are seeing CXL as a potential game changer.

CXL is an open, industry-supported interconnect between processors and devices such as accelerators, memory buffers and smart devices. It is considered a key technology that enables high-speed, low-latency communication, while expanding memory capacity and bandwidth well beyond what is possible today.

The CXL Consortium led by the US tech giant Intel, the prime developer of the new technology, was formed in March 2019. Companies including Samsung, SK, Nvidia and AMD joined the board of directors in January 2022, and have contributed to the market expansion by rolling out new development.

Samsung is leading the commercialization of next-generation memory by developing the industry's first CXL-based DRAM technology in May 2021. Two years after the development, it announced its plan to start mass production of a 128 gigabyte CXL DRAM based on an advanced CXL 2.0 interface this year, as Intel is expected to release its first commercial central processing unit, the Sierra Forest chip, in the first half of next year.

Earlier this month, the tech giant also introduced an open source-based software solution to expand its CXL ecosystem. Additionally, the company hinted at its research on constructing a Processing in Memory, or PIM, architecture underway. It is called an intelligent memory in a CXL DRAM that uses a CXL interface.

Some market watchers have evaluated that Samsung has been recently falling behind SK in HBM chip development. Aiming to avoid repeating the same mistake with the CXL development, the tech giant seems to be actively pushing to take the dominant position in the market, they said.

Lee Jung-bae, executive vice president and head of US memory at Samsung Electronics, said in a blog post last week that the firm would expand the lineup of high-capacity DRAM, including 1 terabyte modules, based on its recent success in developing the industry’s first 32 GB DDR5 DRAM.

"We'll actively utilize novel interfaces such as the CXL Memory Module (CMM) will help to realize a future in which memory bandwidth and capacity can be extended seamlessly, according to operational needs," he said, showing confidence in securing the leadership in the next-generation semiconductors.

SK has also actively invested in securing the next-generation technology, despite a multi-trillion won deficit this year due to a slowdown in the memory chip industry.

"We are investing heavily in the development of emerging memory technologies based on CXL, which can play the role of the second and third HBM," Kwak Noh-jung, who has also been serving as the president and CEO at SK hynix, said during a lecture to students at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon earlier this month.

The world's second-largest memory chip maker developed the industry's first DDR5 DRAM-based CXL memory sample in August last year and showed a CXL memory demonstration on a physical server at the Dell Technologies World 2023 in Las Vegas in May.

The chipmaker recently joined hands with the data processing platform firm HazelCast to publish a white paper on the application of CXL technology, showing its empirical results of a 40 percent improvement in data processing capacity compared to using DRAM alone and a 30-50 percent reduction in waiting time.

The CXL memory market has not yet fully matured, as CPUs that can utilize CXL memory have not yet been launched, however, market watchers expect the market to start growing significantly from 2026. It is considered the "only solution" to handle exponentially increasing data volume with the rise of generative AI chatbots like ChatGPT and autonomous vehicles.

"CXL is the next-generation memory chip, which will likely take the next step after HBM and PIM. Since it is a memory expansion interface, it will be mainly used by companies such as data centers, but it can also be used in personal CPUs in the future," an anonymous industry source told The Korea Herald.

According to a recent forecast by French market research firm Yole Intelligence, the CXL memory will account for more than $20 billion in the $100 billion data center memory market in 2030.

"When the next-generation memory interconnect standard is organized into CXL, the adoption (of the newest memory) is expected to accelerate in the future. ... With the new rising in (CXL) demand, the supply and demand of server DRAM for data centers will likely remain at a good level," said Doh Hyun-woo, an analyst at NH Investment.