In a potentially game-changing development, IBM researchers have announced a new memory technology that could soon replace flash-based memory in everything from consumer devices to cruise missiles. Non-volatile phase-change memory (PCM) can store multiple
bits per cell over extended periods in a form that is cheaper, faster and more durable.
IBM is calling the technology a "paradigm shift for enterprise IT and storage systems within the next five years."
Instant Boot, '100 Times Faster'
The announcement caps a five-month experiment of a PCM test chip in a joint effort by scientists and engineers in Burlington, Vt; Yorktown Heights, N.Y.; and in Zurich which proved that a multi-bit PCM can be reliable enough for practical applications.
The result could enhance the overall performance of business systems while allowing instant boot for servers. IBM said the technology allows writing and retrieval of data 100 times faster than flash while enabling high-storage capacity and preservation without continuous power.
In terms of durability, PCM would last for at least 10 million write cycles, far outpacing current flash for business IT that averages 30,000 cycles, or consumer flash at 3,000, IBM claims.
"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," said Dr. Haris Pozidis, manager of IBM's memory and probe technologies research in Zurich. "By demonstrating a multi-bit phase-change memory technology which achieves for the first time reliability levels akin to those required for enterprise applications, we made a big step toward enabling practical memory devices based on multi-bit PCM."
The researchers modified the "read" and "write" process to overcome the variability of memory cells. "We apply a voltage pulse based on the deviation from the desired level and then measure the resistance. If the desired level of resistance is not achieved, we apply another voltage pulse and measure again -- until we achieve the exact level," Pozidis said.
No More Latency
Technology consultant Rob Enderle said PCM technology has been plagued by bit-error issues, which IBM has evidently now overcome.
"This is huge," said Enderle. "It creates a much higher capacity for solid-state technology, uses far less power, and is 100 times faster. If they can bring it to market, it can replace flash memory in everything from the most common devices like MP3s and smartphones to high-end data centers."
Looking ahead, Enderle said, PCM's high-speed capability would make it attractive in systems "where latency is a problem, such as on a trading floor or in defense systems that have to respond in a fraction of a second to an external threat."
IBM isn't expected to manufacture the technology itself but to license it to other companies for their products, Enderle said.