IBM First Racetrack Memory Chip Prototype using CMOS

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Thanks to cloud computing and the rise of “Big Data,” the world is crying out for faster, cheaper, and more durable ways of storing data. IBM’s answer: If you wanna hold on to all these bits, send them flying.

IBM is cooking up a new type of memory chip that sends bits whizzing along tiny wires, dubbed racetracks. The technology has leaped into the realm of the realistically possible with Big Blue’s announcement today that it can make racetrack memory using standard chipmaking processes. 

IBM researchers have been working out the physics of the technology for years, and the company can now make racetrack memory in CMOS, just like today’s processors and memory chips. IBM is demonstrating a prototype racetrack chip at the IEEE 2011 International Electron Devices Meeting in Washington, D.C. this week.

The technology promises to improve storage capacity of disk drives and the speed of memory chips. You might call it flash memory on steroids. Also, racetrack memory can be rewritten many more times than today’s flash memory. The technology, or something like it, is likely to make solid-state drives the workhorses of data-center storage rather than just premium, high-performance alternatives to hard disk drives.

Racetrack memory works by storing oppositely oriented magnetic regions in microscopic wires. Oriented one way, a bit represents a 1. Oriented the other way, it represents a 0. The magnetic regions speed along the wires, which can be arranged vertically to fit more bits in a given area. The high speed of racetrack memory holds the promise of memory chips that are faster than today’s DRAM chips.

IBM’s prototype CMOS racetrack memory chip has only 256 cells. Racetrack memory chips will have to have many more and smaller wires than those in the prototype to be practical, but just building racetrack memory in chip form is a big step forward for the technology.

Racetrack memory isn’t the only game in town. IBM, Micron Technologies, and Samsung are among the companies working on phase-change memory. This PRAM stores data by switching microscopic regions of a memory chip between crystalline and glass-like states, which have different levels of electrical resistance.

Samsung is demonstrating an 8-gigabit phase-change memory device at the Electron Devices meeting. In June, IBM Research demonstrated the ability to store multiple bits in each cell in a phase-change memory device. The technology is more durable than today’s flash chips: Big Blue is aiming for memory that can withstand being rewritten 10 million times versus 30,000 times for today’s flash chips. IBM is also aiming for memory that is 100 times faster than flash.

Another promising candidate for replacing disk drives and memory chips with one technology is resistive RAM. RRAM stores data by changing the electrical resistance of the material in a memory cell. Low resistance represents “0” and high resistance “1”. In contrast, today’s flash memory stores dates as electrical charges. The absence of a charge represents a 0 and the presence of a charge a 1.

HP and Samsung are among the major players developing RRAM. In July, Samsung researchers developed a prototype RRAM chip that is as fast as DRAM and can withstand being rewritten a trillion times. HP is aiming to develop memory that is 10 times faster and 10 times more power efficient than flash and can hold twice the capacity of today’s flash chips.
Separately, IBM and Micron are demonstrating a jointly developed three-dimensional memory chip at the Electron Devices meeting.

The device is made by stacking memory chips and connecting the layers through vertical channels or “vias”. The technology promises to increase the density of memory storage in a given area by expanding capacity upward rather than outward, like skyscrapers versus suburban sprawl. Getting the most out of every square foot is of keen interest to data center operators. IBM will make the three-dimensional components and Micron will produce the finished memory devices.

All in all, it looks like we have more than one promising horse to bet on in the race to satisfy our insatiable appetite for storing data. 

*by andreascy*