Background on Phase-Change Memory

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2009-10-28 Print this article Print

PCM, which stands to replace DRAM and other components in digital devices during the next five to 10 years, offers a great deal of promise for the entire IT industry. It is blazingly fast, reliable and versatile. However, it is expensive-about 10 times the cost of DRAM-and in the current economic climate it has been a tough sell as a replacement technology.

The pricing, however, is expected to come down over time as fabricating processes are improved.

Intel debuted its first PCM chips at its developers' conference in San Francisco in September 2006. The wafer shown to eWEEK that day represented Intel and STMicroelectronics' first grasp of the new type of nonvolatile memory chip. Intel later started up a new division and merged it with STM to create Numonyx.

A great deal of development has been completed at Numonyx since then; Numonyx CTO Ed Doller told eWEEK Aug. 11 that adoption by mainstream IT companies has been slow but that it would take use by only a couple of big names-Apple and Microsoft would be two of them-for PCM technology to take off into the market stratosphere.

"PCM is on the verge, and we think it's inevitable that it will replace a lot of what is in devices today," Doller said. "But to start, it would take a company that is good at producing both hardware and software to make best use of it. It's bound to happen."

Doller said he thinks PCM will need three to five more years to attain widespread adoption.

PCM chips use the same material, chalcogenide, that is used inside to store data on rewritable optical disks. But instead of using a laser to change the properties of the material and thus create the zeros and ones that make up data, the chips use electricity that flows through a resistor. The resistor heats up and does the job of the laser, changing the materials' properties to represent a zero or a one.

The phase-change process has been used mostly in rewritable DVDs and CDs, but bringing it to the enterprise level for data center use has been a difficult process.

The effort is the "culmination of [work by] some of the smartest materials guys on the planet," Doller said. "Over the years, this has an opportunity to be a very large memory technology."

Most industry people and analysts insist that PCM has the potential to replace both NAND-flash memory designed primarily for data storage-and NOR flash memory, designed for executing code, with one type of chip, streamlining manufacturing processes.

Chris Preimesberger Chris Preimesberger was named Editor-in-Chief of Features & Analysis at eWEEK in November 2011. Previously he served eWEEK as Senior Writer, covering a range of IT sectors that include data center systems, cloud computing, storage, virtualization, green IT, e-discovery and IT governance. His blog, Storage Station, is considered a go-to information source. Chris won a national Folio Award for magazine writing in November 2011 for a cover story on and CEO-founder Marc Benioff, and he has served as a judge for the SIIA Codie Awards since 2005. In previous IT journalism, Chris was a founding editor of both IT Manager's Journal and and was managing editor of Software Development magazine. His diverse resume also includes: sportswriter for the Los Angeles Daily News, covering NCAA and NBA basketball, television critic for the Palo Alto Times Tribune, and Sports Information Director at Stanford University. He has served as a correspondent for The Associated Press, covering Stanford and NCAA tournament basketball, since 1983. He has covered a number of major events, including the 1984 Democratic National Convention, a Presidential press conference at the White House in 1993, the Emmy Awards (three times), two Rose Bowls, the Fiesta Bowl, several NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments, a Formula One Grand Prix auto race, a heavyweight boxing championship bout (Ali vs. Spinks, 1978), and the 1985 Super Bowl. A 1975 graduate of Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., Chris has won more than a dozen regional and national awards for his work. He and his wife, Rebecca, have four children and reside in Redwood City, Calif.Follow on Twitter: editingwhiz

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