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Why Intel killed its Optane memory business • The Register

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Analysis Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger has confirmed that Intel will quit its Optane business, ending its attempt to create and promote a tier of memory that’s a little slower than RAM but had the virtues of persistence and high IOPS.

The news should not, however, come as a surprise. The division has been on life support for some time following Micron’s 2018 decision to terminate its joint venture with Intel, selling the fab in which the 3D XPoint chips that go into Optane drives and modules were made. While Intel has signaled it is open to using third-party foundries, without the means to make its own Optane silicon, the writing was on the wall.

As our sister site Blocks and Files reported in May, the sale only came after Micron had saddled Intel with a glut of 3D XPoint memory modules – more than the chipmaker could sell. Estimates put Intel’s inventories at roughly two years worth of supply.

In its poor earnings report for Q2, Intel said quitting Optane will result in a $559 million inventory impairment. In other words, the company is giving up on the project and writing off the inventory as a loss.

The deal also signals the end of Intel’s SSD business. Two years ago Intel sold its NAND flash business and manufacturing plans to SK hynix to focus its efforts on the Optane business.

Announced in 2015, 3D XPoint memory arrived in the form of Intel’s Optane SSDs two years later. However, unlike SSDs from rivals, Optane SSDs couldn’t compete on capacity or speed. The devices instead offered some of the strongest I/O performance on the market – a quality that made them particularly attractive in latency sensitive applications where sheer IOPS were more important than throughput. Intel claimed its PCIe 4.0-based P5800X SSDs could reach up to 1.6 million IOPS

Intel also used 3D XPoint in its Optane persistent memory DIMMs, particularly around the launch of its second- and third-gen Xeon Scalable processors.

From a distance, Intel’s Optane DIMMs looked no different than your run-of-the-mill DDR4, apart from, maybe, as a heat spreader. However, on closer inspection the DIMMs could be had in capacities far greater than is possible with DDR4 memory today. Capacities of 512GB per DIMM weren’t uncommon.

The DIMMs slotted in alongside standard DDR4 and enabled a number of novel use cases, including a tiered memory architecture that was essentially transparent to the operating system software. When deployed in this fashion, the DDR memory was treated as a large level-4 cache, with the Optane memory behaving as system memory.

While offering nowhere near the performance of DRAM, the approach enabled the deployment of very large, memory-intensive workloads, like databases, at a fraction of the cost of an equivalent amount of DDR4, without requiring software customization. That was the idea, anyway.

Optane DIMMS could also be configured to behave as a high-performance storage device or a combination of storage and memory.

What now?

While DDR5 promises to address some of the capacity challenges that Optane persistent memory solved, with DIMM capacities of 512GB planned, it’s unlikely to be price competitive.

DDR isn’t getting cheaper – at least not quickly – but NAND flash prices are plummeting as supply outpaces demand. All the while, SSDs are getting faster in a hurry.

Micron this week began volume production of a 232-layer module that will push consumer SSDs into 10+ GB/sec territory. That’s still not fast or low latency enough to replace Optane for large in-memory workloads, analysts tell The Register, but it’s getting awfully close to the 17GB/sec offered by a single channel of low-end DDR4.

So if NAND isn’t the answer, then what? Well, there’s actually an alternative to Optane memory on the horizon. It’s called compute express link (CXL) and Intel is already heavily invested in the technology. Introduced in 2019, CXL defines a cache-coherent interface for connecting CPUs, memory, accelerators, and other peripherals.

CXL 1.1, which will ship alongside Intel’s long-delayed Sapphire Rapids Xeon Scalable and AMD’s fourth-gen Eypc Genoa and Bergamo processors later this year, enables memory to be attached directly to the CPU over the PCIe 5.0 link.

Vendors including Samsung and Marvell are already planning memory expansion modules that slot into PCIe like GPU and provide a large pool of additional capacity for memory intensive workloads.

Marvell’s Tanzanite acquisition this spring will allow the vendor to offer Optane-like tiered memory functionality as well.

What’s more, because the memory is managed by a CXL controller on the expansion card, older and cheaper DDR4 or even DDR3 modules could be used alongside modern DDR5 DIMMs. In this regard, the CXL-based memory tiering could be superior as it doesn’t rely on a specialized memory architecture like 3D XPoint.

VMware is pondering software-defined memory that shares memory from one server to other boxes – an effort that will be far more potent if it uses a standard like CXL.

However, emulating some aspects of Intel’s Optane persistent memory may have to wait until the first CXL 2.0-compatible CPUs – which will add support for memory pooling and switching – come to market. It also remains to be seen how software interacts with CXL memory modules in tiered memory applications. ®

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Meditation app Calm sacks one-fifth of staff | Meditation

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The US-based meditation app Calm has laid off 20% of its workforce, becoming the latest US tech startup to announce job cuts.

The firm’s boss, David Ko, said the company, which has now axed about 90 people from its 400-person staff, was “not immune” to the economic climate. “In building out our strategic and financial plan, we revisited the investment thesis behind every project and it became clear that we need to make changes,” he said in a memo to staff.

“I can assure you that this was not an easy decision, but it is especially difficult for a company like ours whose mission is focused on workplace mental health and wellness.”

The Calm app, founded in 2012, offers guided meditation and bedtime stories for people of all ages. It received a surge of downloads triggered by the 2020 Covid lockdowns. By the end of that year, the software company said the app had been downloaded more than 100 million times globally and had amassed over 4 million paying subscribers.

Investors valued the firm, which said it had been profitable since 2016, at $2bn.

In the memo, Ko went on: “We did not come to this decision lightly, but are confident that these changes will help us prioritize the future, focus on growth and become a more efficient organization.”

More than 500 startups have laid off staff this year, according to layoffs.fyi, a website that tracks such announcements.

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Let there be ambient light sensing, without data theft • The Register

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Six years after web security and privacy concerns surfaced about ambient light sensors in mobile phones and notebooks, browser boffins have finally implemented defenses.

The W3C, everyone’s favorite web standards body, began formulating an Ambient Light Events API specification back in 2012 to define how web browsers should handle data and events from ambient light sensors (ALS). Section 4 of the draft spec, “Security and privacy considerations,” was blank. It was a more carefree time.

Come 2015, the spec evolved to include acknowledgement of the possibility that ALS might allow data correlation and device fingerprinting, to the detriment of people’s privacy. And it suggested that browser makers might consider event rate limiting as a potential mitigation.

By 2016, it became clear that allowing web code to interact with device light sensors entailed privacy and security risks beyond fingerprinting. Dr Lukasz Olejnik, an independent privacy researcher and consultant, explored the possibilities in a 2016 blog post.

Olejnik cited a number of ways in which ambient light sensor readings might be abused, including data leakage, profiling, behavioral analysis, and various forms of cross-device communication.

He described a few proof-of-concept attacks, devised with the help of security researcher Artur Janc, in a 2017 post and delved into more detail in a 2020 paper [PDF].

“The attack we devised was a side-channel leak, conceptually very simple, taking advantage of the optical properties of human skin and its reflective properties,” Olejnik explained in his paper.

“Skin reflectance only accounts for the 4-7 percent emitted light but modern display screens emit light with significant luminance. We exploited these facts of nature to craft an attack that reasoned about the website content via information encoded in the light level and conveyed via the user skin, back to the browsing context tracking the light sensor readings.”

It was this technique that enabled the proof-of-concept attacks like stealing web history through inferences made from CSS changes and stealing cross origin resources, such as images or the contents of iframes.

Snail-like speed

Browser vendors responded in various ways. In May 2018, with the release of Firefox 60, Mozilla moved access to the W3C proximity and ambient light APIs behind flags, and applied further limitations in subsequent Firefox releases.

Apple simply declined to implement the API in WebKit, along with a number of other capabilities. Both Apple and Mozilla currently oppose a proposal for a generic sensor API.

Google took what Olejnik described his paper as a “more nuanced” approach, limiting the precision of sensor data.

But those working on the W3C specification and on the browsers implementing the spec recognized that such privacy protections should be formalized, to increase the likelihood the API will be widely adopted and used.

So they voted to make the imprecision of ALS data normative (standard for browsers) and to require the camera access permission as part of the ALS spec.

Those changes finally landed in the ALS spec this week. As a result, Google and perhaps other browser makers may choose to make the ALS API available by default rather than hiding it behind a flag or ignoring it entirely. ®



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4 supports that can help employees outside of work

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Everyone has different situations to deal with outside of the workplace. But that doesn’t mean the workplace can’t be a source of support.

Employers and governments alike are often striving to make workplaces better for everyone, whether it’s workplace wellbeing programmes or gender pay gap reporting.

However, life is about more than just the hours that are spent in work, and how an employer supports those other life challenges can be a major help.

Family-friendly benefits

Several companies have been launching new benefits and policies that help families and those trying to have children.

Job site Indeed announced a new ‘family forming’ benefit package earlier this year, which is designed to provide employees with family planning and fertility-related assistance.

The programme includes access to virtual care and a network of providers who can guide employees through their family-forming journey.

Vodafone Ireland introduced a new fertility and pregnancy policy in February 2022 that includes extended leave for pregnancy loss, fertility treatment and surrogacy.

And as of the beginning of 2022, Pinterest employees around the world started receiving a host of new parental benefits, including a minimum of 20 weeks’ parental leave, monetary assistance of up to $10,000 or local equivalent for adoptive parents, and four weeks of paid leave to employees who experience a loss through miscarriage at any point in a pregnancy.

Helping those experiencing domestic abuse

There are also ways to support employees going through a difficult time. Bank of Ireland introduced a domestic abuse leave policy earlier this year, which provides a range of supports to colleagues who may be experiencing domestic abuse.

Under the policy, the bank will provide both financial and non-financial support to colleagues, such as paid leave and flexibility with the work environment or schedule.

In emergency situations where an employee needs to immediately leave an abusive partner, the bank will help through paid emergency hotel accommodation or a salary advance.

In partnership with Women’s Aid, the company is also rolling out training to colleagues to help recognise the symptoms of abuse and provide guidance on how to take appropriate action.

Commenting on the policy, Women’s Aid CEO Sarah Benson said employers who implement policies and procedures for employees subjected to domestic abuse can help reduce the risk of survivors giving up work and increase “feelings of solidarity and support at a time when they may feel completely isolated and alone”.

A menopause policy

In 2021, Vodafone created a policy to support workers after a survey it commissioned revealed that nearly two-thirds of women who experienced menopause symptoms said it impacted them at work. A third of those who had symptoms also said they hid this at work. Half of those surveyed felt there is a stigma around talking about menopause, which is something Vodafone is seeking to combat through education for all staff.

Speaking to SiliconRepublic.com last year, Vodafone Ireland CEO Anne O’Leary said the company would roll out a training and awareness programme to all employees globally, including a toolkit to improve their understanding of menopause and provide guidance on how to support employees, colleagues and family members.

In Ireland, Vodafone employees are able to avail of leave for sickness and medical treatment, flexible working hours and additional care through the company’s employee assistance programme when going through the menopause.

Support hub for migrants

There are also initiatives to help people get their foot on the employment ladder.

Earlier this year, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, TD launched a new service with education and employment supports for refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants.

The Pathways to Progress platform is part of the Open Doors Initiative supporting marginalised groups to access further education, employment and entrepreneurship in Ireland.

As part of the initiative, member company Siro offered a paid 12-week internship programme for six people who are refugees. The internships include job preparation, interview skills and access to the company’s online learning portals.

Open Doors Initiative CEO Jeanne McDonagh said the chance to land a meaningful job or establish a new business is key to people’s integration into Ireland, no matter what route they took to get here.

“Some are refugees, some are living in direct provision, some will have their status newly regularised, and others will come directly for work,” she said. “Our new service aims to support all migrants in finding a decent job as they prepare to enter the Irish workforce, and to support employers as they seek to build an inclusive culture in their workplaces.”

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