IBM’s op­ti­cal stor­age is 50 times faster than flash

Fiji Sun - - Techworld -

Flash stor­age is too slow for your de­vice’s main mem­ory, but RAM is ex­pen­sive and volatile.

Thanks to a break­through from IBM, phase-change mem­ory (PCM) might one day re­place them both.

The crys­tal-based stor­age has been used in op­ti­cal disks and other tech for at least 15 years, but the tech­nol­ogy has been lim­ited by the cost and stor­age den­sity; cells are ei­ther “on” or “off.”

How­ever, IBM re­searchers have fig­ured out how to save 3-bits of data per cell.

Dra­mat­i­cally in­creas­ing the ca­pac­ity of the orig­i­nal tech.

To store PCM data on a Blu-ray disk, you ap­ply a high cur­rent to amor­phous (non-crys­talline) glass ma­te­ri­als, trans­form­ing them into a more con­duc­tive crys­tale form.

To read it back, you ap­ply a lower volt­age to mea­sure con­duc­tiv­ity -- when it’s high, the state is “1,” and when it’s low, it’s “0.”

By heat­ing up the ma­te­ri­als, more states can be stored.

But the prob­lem is that the crys­tals can “drift” depend­ing on the am­bi­ent tem­per­a­ture.

IBM’s team fig­ured out how to track and en­code those vari­a­tions, al­low­ing them to re­li­ably read 3-bits of data per cell long af­ter it was writ­ten.

That sud­denly makes PCM a lot more in­ter­est­ing -- its speed is cur­rently much bet­ter than flash, but the costs are as high as RAM thanks to the low den­sity.

“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,” says Dr. Haris Pozidis from IBM Re­search.

With the dis­cov­ery, phase-change mem­ory could be­come fea­si­ble for more than just op­ti­cal disks.

For in­stance, PCM mem­ory could be used in con­junc­tion with flash to cre­ate an ex­tremely fast cache for a cell phone. “A mo­bile phone’s op­er­at­ing sys­tem could be stored in PCM, en­abling the phone to launch in a few sec­onds,” ac­cord­ing to the re­searchers.

It could also re­place reg­u­lar SSDs for time­crit­i­cal ap­pli­ca­tions, be­cause PCM mem­ory can read data in less than 1 mi­crosec­ond, com­pared to 70 mi­crosec­onds for flash. RAM is still much faster, of course, but in cer­tain ap­pli­ca­tions, PCM could work as “uni­ver­sal” stor­age and re­place both RAM and flash mem­ory.

The re­search still needs to be de­vel­oped com­mer­cially, and has to com­pete with other promis­ing tech like mem­ris­tors and re­sis­tive RAM. IBM thinks that it’s more than fea­si­ble, how­ever, and sees it as the per­fect stor­age medium for Wat­son-like ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence apps.

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