MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — The flash memory sector noted a historic development June 25 when Spansion broke out of stealth mode and introduced a new, industrial-strength brand of the solid-state chip before a small group of analysts, media types and industry people here at the Computer History Museum.
Spansion, established five years ago as a joint venture of AMD and Fujitsu and went public in 2005, introduced what it called a “new class” of flash memory called EcoRAM, the sole purpose of which is to help solve the growing energy consumption crisis in enterprise data centers by replacing power-hungry DRAM (dynamic random access memory) in data center servers.
Flash industry observers have known and/or suspected that an updated version of flash to replace DRAM was in the works. With EcoRAM — which uses only a fraction of the electrical draw that DRAM requires — it appears that the time finally has come.
DRAM, commonly used in servers of all types for boot-up and other purposes, offers fast access to data but consumes an inordinate amount of power. It stores each bit of data in a separate capacitor within an integrated circuit. Since capacitors leak charge, the information eventually fades unless the capacitor charge is refreshed periodically — which is why DRAM uses so much power.
DRAM has served the IT industry well for nearly two decades. However, it is expensive to produce, and the highest-capacity form that can be acquired is only 8GB. The 4GB form is the most common.
EcoRAM, which is in beta tests now with a few major Internet companies that officials declined to name, is expected to be much cheaper in the long run and can be acquired in DIMMs (dual inline memory modules) of up to 32GB capacity.
Spansion has combined with fellow startup Virident Systems, whose new GreenGateway technology — also announced June 24 — serves as the server architecture platform for the EcoRAM memory. The combination of the two technologies (“We’re joined at the hip,” said Virident CEO Raj Parehk) allows this “flash on steroids” to do its thing, which is to provide 10 times the read/write speed of DRAM, hold more data and be less expensive to acquire and implement.
“We expect Spansion EcoRAM can help slash energy consumption by up to 75 percent in Internet data center servers and offer four times the memory capacity of traditional DRAM-only servers for the same energy consumption,” Spansion President and CEO Bertrand Cambou told eWEEK.
A New Class of Solid-State Memory
This development is not simply a big step forward, it’s the creation of a whole new class of solid-state memory, Cambou said. “What we have done is combine the best attributes of NOR flash and NAND flash to come up with EcoRAM, a completely new product,” Cambou said.
NOR-based flash, which first came to the market from Toshiba in 1988, has long erase and write times but provides full address and data buses, allowing random access to any memory location.
NAND flash memory, with a much faster read-write performance, also originated at Toshiba and forms the core of the removable USB storage devices, as well as most memory card formats now available.
Spansion EcoRAM also takes advantage of the fast read/write speeds of Spansion’s own MirrorBit Eclipse architecture, which enables eight times more capacity per DIMM and presents the potential for IT managers to replace four conventional DRAM-based servers with one Spansion EcoRAM-based server.
MirrorBit offers higher yields than traditional NOR and scales more easily to higher densities, Cambou said. MirrorBit, as a simpler memory cell, requires fewer manufacturing steps to produce than other technologies. As a result, MirrorBit technology can be produced at a lower overall wafer cost.
Cambou wouldn’t be specific about which potential customers are currently testing it in their data centers or when EcoRAM may become generally available. “All I can say for now is that this is a 2008 project,” he said.
Cambou did say that “all the big Internet companies are interested in this,” hinting that Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Amazon, eBay and others are likely current testers. “We decided to focus our initial testing on companies that do high-transaction server production loads like search,” Cambou said.
With Google alone now estimated to be utilizing about 450,000 servers and preparing to build a huge new facility in Iceland, any power draw savings at all — no matter how minute — can make a substantial difference in power and cooling and in bottom-line cost.
In addition, the word being whispered around the industry is that Facebook, which recently overtook MySpace.com in number of subscribers, is planning to move off leased, colocated data centers and will build its own fleet of data farms. Mark Zuckerberg and Co. will be looking to use the latest, greatest and greenest data center components available on the market, and EcoRAM fits that bill exactly.
“There is a class of applications in data centers that are constrained by the addressable main memory a server can handle. Solutions like Spansion’s, which revolve around creative use of technology, are critical for solving the growing energy crisis in data centers,” Rufus Connell, vice president of Frost & Sullivan, an industry consulting company that focuses on market research and analysis for corporate growth, told the audience.
The announcement of EcoRAM had to have made waves over at Intel, which is investing a great deal of time and effort into developing NAND flash and PCM (phase-change memory) solid-state processors into data center-ready components.
This story was updated to include new information about the size of DRAM DIMMs.