Samsung Electronics, SK hynix Gear Up to Develop CXL Technology Following HBM

SK hynix’s CXL DRAM
SK hynix’s CXL DRAM

The rapid growth of Compute Express Link (CXL) – emerging as the next-generation DRAM standard – is capturing the semiconductor industry’s attention. Both Samsung Electronics and SK hynix view CXL as a game-changing technology for the next-gen memory market, the next step after High Bandwidth Memory (HBM). Consequently, they’re investing aggressively to secure an early foothold in this domain.

According to market research firm Yole Group on Oct. 12, the global CXL market is predicted to reach US$15 billion (approximately 20.1 trillion won) by 2028. While currently less than 10% of CPUs are compatible with the CXL standard, it’s anticipated that by 2027, all CPUs globally will be designed to interface with CXL.

At the heart of the CXL market is DRAM. Yole Group projects that by 2028, US$12 billion, or 80% of total CXL market revenue, will come from DRAM. This significant DRAM market potential is due to its “scalability.” In today’s AI era characterized by data explosion, existing computing standards like PCIe restrict easy DRAM module installations and hinder physical scalability. Moreover, the varied communication methods between CPUs, GPUs, and other processing units inside servers can slow memory information storage speeds.

CXL addresses these challenges. If developed as planned, CXL could practically allow for “infinite” DRAM expansion in servers. It also unifies communication protocols among different information processing devices, simplifying data processing stages and expanding DRAM. This leads to reduced data bottlenecks and improved energy efficiency. Recognizing these advantages, global chip designers like Intel, AMD, and Nvidia, and IT giants such as Microsoft, Meta, Google, and Huawei have formed the “CXL Consortium” to actively discuss future standards and potential applications.

Leading memory manufacturers Samsung Electronics and SK hynix, ranked first and second globally, are actively pursuing CXL technology. Assured infinite scalability in DRAM provides a golden opportunity to dramatically boost server DRAM sales, making it imperative for these companies to spearhead technological advancements.

In May this year, Samsung Electronics officially announced plans to launch a new “CXL 2.0” product and start mass production within the year. A year after developing the world’s first CXL 1.1 standards-based CXL DRAM in May of the previous year, Samsung unveiled its 2.0 version with a 128 GB product, taking a strategic edge over competitors. Samsung has been collaborating with Intel on CXL DRAM development.

SK hynix has introduced a CXL DRAM module using the latest DDR5 DRAM standard. On Oct. 12, Kwak No-jung, president of SK hynix, met with students from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in Daejeon, emphasizing the significance of the CXL market, saying, “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.”

An industry insider, requesting anonymity, said, “Though not widely known to the public, both Samsung Electronics and SK hynix are ‘all-in’ on securing a head start in CXL technology, just as they were with HBM.”

However, there are still many hurdles to overcome for CXL implementation. Samsung’s developed CXL 2.0 DRAM possesses limited scalability akin to existing standards. Challenges such as the development of a CXL switch device compatible with GPUs, CPUs, and DRAM; the design of CXL DRAM modules; and the rapid development of supporting software are all urgent tasks.

Building an ecosystem is another approach. Notable entities in this space include domestic startup Panmesia, partnering with global semiconductor companies boasting CXL 3.0 design assets and integrated solutions, and China’s Montage, equipped with CXL DRAM controller design technology. These companies, among others, are drawing attention. Another industry figure pointed out, “To achieve ideal scalability in CXL 3.0, it’s not enough to pause at partial technology development; holistic technology enveloping the entire ecosystem is necessary.”