IBM scientists create a new memory technology that's 100x faster than flash

A new kind of memory could improve consumer electronics and cloud storage applications. IBM's memory breakthrough explained.

IBM developed a new type of computer chip memory that can store multiple data bits per cell, a discovery that could lead to better performance for enterprise data storage and cheaper memory chips for consumer electronics like mobile phones.

Traditionally, data is stored as an electrical charge. But this new memory chip technology called phase-change memory stores data by changing the state of a material from amorphous to crystalline. PCM stores data when there's a resistance change in the material. It uses less power than flash memory and can write data 100 times faster than any flash memory that is available today.

Currently only single-level cells PCM are on the market and are found in products like Samsung's GT-E2550 GSM mobile phone. The multi-level cell technology could lead to better storage density, keep data forever and reduce manufacturing costs.

“As organizations and consumers increasingly embrace cloud-computing models and services, whereby most of the data is stored and processed in the cloud, ever more powerful and efficient, yet affordable storage technologies are needed,” Haris Pozidis, manager of Memory and Probe Technologies at IBM Research said in a statement.

The chip is 90 nanometers in width. It can store data when there's no power supply and won't corrupt the data. IBM researchers have been working on PCM for a while. In 2005, IBM partnered with Infineon and Macronix to develop PCM because the researchers saw a potential for PCM to succeed flash memory chips, which are in consumer electronics such as digital cameras.

NAND is inherently limiting. For example, consumer products like Apple's MacBook Air use NAND flash memory. Flash memory requires data to be erased before it can be reprogrammed with new data, reports ComputerWorld. The problem with NAND flash is the life cycle problem: consumer and enterprise products have 10,000 to 100,000 write cycles, respectively. IBM says PCM can hold up 10 million write cycles, so it won't wear out like flash memory.

However, IBM won't produce the new memory chips, but plans to license the technology out to others.

CNET reports that others are working on PCM as well, citing Hynix, Samsung and Micron.

While still in research stage, the new PCM technology could be used for enterprise and cloud applications, and be integrated into existing computer systems. CNET's Stephen Shankland writes:

Phase-change memory (PCM), could snuggle up alongside conventional dynamic random access memory (DRAM) to improve computer performance in ways that flash memory so far can't. It's not as fast as DRAM, but IBM says it's 100 times faster at reading and writing data than flash memory, its chief competitor today.

IBM has a history of breakthroughs, namely the invention of DRAM, which enabled the production of the first low-cost microprocessors. DRAM is now in household gadgets from computers to game consoles and in data centers. It will be interesting to see what happens when PCM hits the market in the next five years.

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