Researchers are two steps closer to creating a mass-market version of technology called phase-change memory that could change how computers of the future are put together.
Intel and Numonyx, the chipmaker's joint venture with STMicroelectonics that's focused on flash memory, announced Wednesday they've built a new type of phase-change memory chip they hope will help fulfill the technology's promise for small size and large capacity.
Its 64-megabit capacity isn't momentous on its own--Numonyx announced a 128Mb device in 2006 and Samsung said in September it's producing a 512Mb chip. But what is significant are two major advances in making the decades-old idea practical.
First, the researchers built a grid of wires into the chip so a computer can easily control the writing of a 1 or 0 in each of the 64 million memory cells. Second, they announced their manufacturing process lets them stack several layers atop each other so memory can be packed more densely in a given volume.
Storing numbers in a computer hardly is new, so why could phase-change memory, which records ones and zeros by changing the molecular state of a particular type of glass, be a big deal?
In short, it could combine conventional computer memory's high speed with flash memory's low cost, low power demands, and high capacity. Having lots of fast memory on hand could simplify computer hardware and software that today must reckon with a hierarchy of storage technologies that trade off performance for capacity.
Operating systems today must constantly work to keep important information in memory while relegating the rest to "virtual memory" stored on hard drives--or, these days, an intermediate layer in the hierarchy, solid state disks made of flash memory. Deciding what goes where is complicated, and priorities change from one moment to the next.
"At Intel, we see this as an important milestone in enabling a future class of memory where you can combine attributes of memory semantics and storage semantics, potentially collapsing the technologies into one memory type," said Al Fazio, Intel's director of memory technology development, discussing the technology Wednesday. "The research is very promising in delivering that."
For another thing, phase-change memory could get around difficulties of shrinking current memory technologies to ever-smaller sizes. And for another, it could lower the power consumption, reducing waste heat and extending battery life.