New device may spur a computer memory revolution

A unique kind of computer memory that allows computers to boot up instantly may also lead to better energy-efficiency.

A unique kind of computer memory that allows computers to boot up instantly may also lead to better energy-efficiency.

Typically, computers rely on two types of memory to carry out its day-to-day tasks. This division of labor is necessary since running software programs requires the fast and powered version known as "volatile" or RAM memory, and data storage can only be handled by "non-volatile" or hard drive memory that saves the data even when computers are turned off. But the new device, which the developers at North Carolina State University call a double floating-gate field effect transistor or FET, is remarkable in that it can perform the functions of both.

The arrival of an all-in-one memory chip would bring with it some pretty sweet benefits. For one, computers with the FET transistor built-in can be start turned on immediately, since the start-up data could be accessed directly from the main memory instead of the much slower hard drive. But more significantly, it may help IT companies get a handle on energy consumption.

Last week, I wrote about how the increasing amount of user-generated data like photos, videos, and other files kept at data farms have riled up some environmental groups as more power-hungry centers are being built to accommodate the demand for more storage. The server farms are constantly consuming energy because the servers are kept turned on to ensure that processes on the main memory stay humming, even during periods of low user activity.

“The double floating-gate FET would help solve this problem,” says Paul Franzon, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at N.C. State and the co-author of a paper describing the research. “Because data could be stored quickly in nonvolatile memory – and retrieved just as quickly. This would allow portions of the server memory to be turned off during periods of low use without affecting performance.”

(You can read more about the environmental brouhaha surrounding data farms here .)

As far as the nuts and bolts of how the transistor works, Franzon explains that "existing nonvolatile memory used in data storage devices utilizes a single floating gate, which stores charge in the floating gate to signify a 1 or 0 in the device – or one ‘bit’ of information," but by using two floating gates "the device can store a bit in a nonvolatile mode, and/or it can store a bit in a fast, volatile mode – like the normal main memory on your computer.”

Franzon also said that he has looked into certain reliability issues the new technology may present and thinks the device “can have a very long lifetime, when it comes to storing data in the volatile mode.”

The paper detailing his team's research will be published Feb. 10 in IEEE’s Computer.

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