New chips that blur the line between computer memory and storage are starting to move beyond niche applications and could change how we use PCs, an industry analyst said Sunday.
The chips would enable the same instant-on capability that's common on tablets, but at much higher performance, said Tom Coughlin, founder of Coughlin Associates.
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"We're seeing the development of new solid-state storage technologies that are starting to play a role," he said. "MRAM is one that we're seeing playing a role providing a non-volatile memory technology, and there's some talk about resistive RAM doing some things."
Conventional memory chips -- called DRAM -- store ones and zeros using a electrical charge in each memory cell, but Magnetoresistive RAM (MRAM) uses a magnetic charge. Resistive RAM (RRAM) is based on a sandwich made from two materials, with the center layer having a different resistance to the material that makes up the outer layers.
"Some of these new technologies that have been in the lab and have been finding niche applications have been getting a little bit more widespread," said Coughlin. He was speaking at the Storage Visions conference happening on the sidelines of the International CES in Las Vegas.
Many of the biggest computer memory chip makers are beginning a shift to the new technologies.
Renesas, Hitachi and Micron Technology are among major players working together on an MRAM project at Japan's Tohoku University, according to the Nikkei newspaper. And in August this year, startup Crossbar said it plans to make and license RRAM.
Work still needs to be done on both technologies before they can replace DRAM chips, and Coughlin said the price of the chips also needs to come down.
"When they do that, there's going to be a lot of interest in creating computer architectures that will span storage and memory -- where I can actually have a memory that doesn't go out when the computer power goes out," he said.
PCs today use DRAM to run programs and temporarily store data required by the system and software. The contents of the DRAM are lost when the power goes off, but with MRAM or RRAM it would be possible to instantly resume a computing session even after the machine has been switched off.
Flash memory, commonly found in tablet PCs, already offers persistent storage after the power is removed, but the new chips would out perform flash, according to their developers.
Crossbar says its RRAM will eventually deliver 20 times faster write performance, 20 times less power consumption and 10 times more durability than NAND flash memory.
Bringing persistent memory to PCs might introduce at least one problem.
"A lot of people, in order to recover from system crashes and problems, will restart their computers. Well, it's usually something bugged up in the memory, so if my memory stays even when I turn it off, then I have to find new ways of doing that," said Coughlin.
As a result, computer makers might be forced to make more reliable systems, he said.
Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org