IBM Storage Breakthrough May Speed Up Smartphones, Apps

Advances in phase-change memory could lead to a storage technology that approaches the speed of DRAM.

Thomas Claburn

May 18, 2016

2 Min Read
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On Tuesday, IBM said it had achieved a storage memory breakthrough that advances phase-change memory (PCM) in becoming a universal memory technology.

A universal memory technology should be suitable for most computing tasks and have few, if any, disadvantages. The fastest memory technology, DRAM, loses data when powered off. It's also expensive compared to alternatives. NAND flash memory retains data without power, but can't endure too many read/write cycles and costs more than disk storage. Magnetic disk storage is affordable and capacious, but also slow and ill-suited to computational demands.

IBM says it believes it can make PCM memory that approaches the speed of DRAM and can retain data like NAND flash over millions of read/write cycles. The company's researchers have managed to store 3 bits of data per cell in a 64k-cell array at elevated temperatures and after 1 million endurance cycles.

In an email, Haris Pozidis, manager of non-volatile memory systems at IBM Research in Zurich, said that in principle that translates to a potential tripling of PCM chip capacity, but mentioned that other factors come into play.

"Typically, the underlying circuitry (e.g. to program and read the cells) is more complicated with 3 vs. 1-bit/cell technology," said Pozidis. "As a result, more area of the chip may be occupied by the peripheral circuitry, which, for the same overall chip size, may shrink the area available for cell storage. Therefore, as fewer cells can be fabricated, typically the capacity may not be triple. However it ends up being pretty close to that ideal."

Pozidis sees PCM as a potential universal memory because it's fast, persistent, dense, and cost competitive. "Reaching 3 bits per cell is a significant milestone, because at this density the cost of PCM will be significantly less than DRAM and closer to flash," he said in a statement.

As examples of how the technology could be used, IBM suggests PCM technology could store a mobile phone's operating system, enabling it to launch in seconds, or it could keep entire databases in memory for time-critical financial applications.

Intel and Micron have a similar vision for their 3D XPoint technology, announced last year.

Read the rest of this article on InformationWeek.

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