Tomorrow’s Memory Technologies

Monatomic PCMs: A New Direction

Ron NealeUntil now designers of PCM devices have tried to make PCM meet their expectations by experimenting with an almost infinite number of possible multi-element glass compositions, in order to tinker with or emphasise a particular composition-related device characteristic. The apparent advantage of this great variety of materials comes with the baggage of reliability and performance-compromising element separation, driven by the forces of electro-migration, electrostatic effects and phase separation.

Is it possible to cast aside the problems of the multi-element PCM compositions and look at the possibility of monatomic PCMs?  For a team at IBM, Zurich and Aachen University the answer is an unequivocal “Yes!” and recently they have published details of the remarkable progress they have made with amorphous antimony (Sb), as an initial candidate element. This research was published in a June 2018 paper in Nature Materials Letters titled: Monatomic phase change memory, by Martin Salinga et al, IBM and Aachen University).

A difficulty faces those venturing in this new direction: While it is possible to bring many elements to the amorphous state, they very quickly crystallize at room temperature and higher.  The IBM researchers used simulations to find that the keys to obtaining a stable amorphous state is to control the quenching rate and the volume of the sample. That part of the antimony research is underpinned by some very impressive simulations that use only about 200 atoms.

Here’s the issue that this approach Continue reading

Extending the Write/Erase Lifetime of Phase Change Memory: Part 4 – The Possible Implications for 3D XPoint and Optane

Ron NealeThis is Part 4 of a series in the Memory Guy blog, which has been looking at some important detailed analytical work by a joint team at IBM and Yale University which might point to the way of achieving improved PCM endurance.  I want, in this final part, to focus on its possible implications for commercial PCM products.


When Intel and Micron first introduced 3D XPoint Memory the companies claimed that it would be 1,000 times as fast as flash memory with 1,000 times the endurance at ten times the density of standard memory (meaning DRAM).  Now that Intel’s XPoint-based Optane SSDs have been released and their specifications are public we can estimate what the technology’s endurance might be.

The table below, explained in another Memory Guy blog post, gives estimates of best-case endurance for the cells in the XPoint memory in Optane SSDs.  In other words, with a sophisticated enough controller, good DRAM buffering, and overprovisioning, all of which are techniques commonly used to extend the life of the media in a NAND flash SSD, the cell lifetime could be significantly lower than that shown in the last column of the table and the SSD would still provide the specified endurance.  (These techniques are explained in detail in an SSD Guy blog post series for anyone who is interested in understanding them.)

As the calculated Continue reading

Making Sense of Intel & Micron’s XPoint Breakup

Micron-Intel 3D XPoint Memory InternalsOn Monday, July 16, Intel and Micron announced the termination of the two companies’ 3D XPoint Memory development efforts.  The companies will complete development of the second-generation product after which the IMFT Lehi, Utah facility will continue to manufacture the product but the two companies will no longer co-develop new versions of the 3D XPoint Memory.

Most readers haven’t been watching this business as carefully as The Memory Guy, and are puzzled by the move.  I will share what I know in an attempt to make the decision a little clearer.

Three years ago in July 2015 the two companies held an event to launch 3D XPoint Memory technology.  This upcoming technology would be 1,000 times faster than flash, and provide 1,000 times the endurance, on a chip that was 10 times as dense as “Standard Memory,” which everyone was to infer was DRAM.  This last implied that the technology would sell for a lower price than DRAM, and that’s the most important way that a technology that’s slower than DRAM can gain acceptance in a Continue reading

Extending the Write/Erase Lifetime of Phase Change Memory: Part 3 – Failure Modes for the Threshold Switch

Ron NealeThis is Part 3 of a short Memory Guy series which continues to explore the possible future impact on PCM memory performance, especially write/erase endurance, building on the results of the IBM/Yale University analysis outlined in Part 1 and Part 2.


Part 3 of this series of articles triggered by the recently published PCM device analysis by a team from IBM/Yale University, moves to a look at its possible implications for the arsenic doped GST threshold switch.  Although the threshold switch was not part of the IBM/Yale work, the implementation of the call for bipolar operation of PCMs means there will be a requirement for a threshold switch whose durability matches that of the memory with which it will be associated in a memory array.

If the study’s finding for PCM can be applied to the arsenic-doped GST threshold switch which is used in today’s commercially-available PCM arrays then the threshold switch might just be the weak link that accounts for the poor endurance of commercial PCM memory arrays.

One little conundrum we must address is: Which Continue reading

Extending the Write/Erase Lifetime of Phase Change Memory: Part 2 – A More Complete View of Element Separation

Ron NealeThis is Part 2 of a short Memory Guy series which will continue to explore the possible future impact on PCM memory performance, especially write/erase endurance, building on the results of the IBM/Yale University analysis outlined in Part 1.


After, in Part 1, summarizing the methodology my next step was to try to bring together in another simple diagram all the detail of the complexity of  the movement of the different elements of the phase change memory material at different locations within the memory cell which the IBM/Yale work has disclosed. Movement which leads to the conclusion that bi-polar operation would be means of extending PCM endurance.

In this post’s first diagram (below) the central region provides illustration of the paper’s unique PCM device structure: A high aspect ratio tapered cell lined with a metal conductor. With the two-state memory switching region located (red coloured) roughly at the centre of the taper.  This means that, Continue reading

Extending the Write/Erase Lifetime of Phase Change Memory: Part 1- PCM Element Separation and Endurance

Ron NealeThis is the first of a new line-up of Memory Guy posts by Ron Neale.   In this 4-part series Ron takes a look at the recently-published analysis by a team from IBM and Yale University (Wiley: Communications of Advanced Materials, Volume 30, Issue 9, March 1, 2018 “Self-Healing of a Confined Phase Change Memory Device with a Metallic Surfactant Layer,” Xie et al) which has cast some new light on the complexity of the movement and element separation in phase change memory (PCM) device structures.


In this series of articles I will briefly review what I think is an important piece of work and its implications for the future of  PCM write/erase (w/e) endurance in commercial PCM memory arrays. Today’s production Phase-Change Memory, the basis of the Intel/Micron 3D XPoint Memory, wears out faster than expected.  This series will investigate some of the potential reasons for this discrepancy.

Back in 2016 a research team led by IBM claimed the world record for PCM w/e endurance of  greater than 2 x 10E12 cycles (ALD-based Confined PCM with a Metallic Liner Toward Unlimited Endurance, Proc IEDM 2016 ). As of today commercially available PCM memory arrays offer w/e endurance of some six orders of magnitude less.  The table below Continue reading

Ron Neale To Share Posts

Ron NealeThe Memory Guy is pleased to begin publishing posts from Ron Neale.  Ron is a specialist in phase-change memory (PCM or PRAM) who has been contributing a lot of analysis of this technology in EE Times.

Ron’s career has centered around phase-change memory.  He was the lead author for the groundbreaking 1970 PCM article in Electronics Magazine, co-authored by Intel’s Gordon Moore (of Moore’s Law fame) introducing the world’s first PCM, a 256-bit device.

Now that the Intel/Micron 3D XPoint Memory has been revealed to use the same technology as Numonyx’ NOR-compatible PCMs, Ron’s analysis of this technology is especially poignant.

Look for posts that feature his keen insight on the technology, its particular challenges, and the ways that PCM is applied to practical problems in advance computing.

Latest White Paper: New Memories for Efficient Computing

A Potpourri of Emerging MemoriesThere has been a lot of discussion in the trade press lately about new memory technologies.  This is with good reason: Existing memory technologies are approaching a limit after which bits can’t be shrunk any smaller, and that limit would put an end to Moore’s Law.

But there are even more compelling reasons for certain applications to convert from today’s leading technologies (like NAND flash, DRAM, NOR flash, SRAM, and EEPROM) to one of these new technologies, and that is the fact that the newer technologies all provide considerable energy savings in computing environments.

Objective Analysis has just published a white paper that can be downloaded for free which addresses a number of these technologies.  The white paper explains why energy is wasted with today’s technologies and how these new memory types can dramatically reduce energy consumption.

It also provides a Continue reading

Storage/Memory Hierarchy 40 Years Ago

1978 Memory/Storage HierarchyLast year I stumbled upon something on the Internet that I thought would be fun to share.  It’s the picture on the left from a 1978 book by Laurence Allman: Memory Design Microcomputers to Mainframes.  The picture’s not too clear, but it is a predecessor to a graphic of the memory/storage hierarchy that The Memory Guy often uses to explain how various elements (HDD, SSD, DRAM) fit together.

On the horizontal axis is Access Time, which the storage community calls latency.  The vertical axis shows cost per bit.  The chart uses a log-log format: both the X and Y axes are in orders of magnitude.  This allows a straight line to be drawn through the points that represent the various technologies, and prevent most of the technologies from being squeezed into the bottom left corner of the chart.

What I find fascinating about this graphic is not only the technologies that it includes but also the way that it’s presented.  First, let’s talk about the technologies.

At the very top we have RAM: “TTL, ECL, and fast MOS static types.”  TTL and ECL, technologies that are seldom Continue reading

Wafer Shortages and DRAM/NAND

Mark Thirsk, Linx ConsultingRecently I have been hearing concerns that an impending wafer shortage might drive today’s DRAM and NAND flash shortages to epic proportions.

The Memory Guy doesn’t pretend to have any understanding of the raw wafer business, so I decided to consult Mark Thirsk, managing partner of Linx Consulting.  Mark has been in this industry for quite a while and has a very good understanding of the ongoing status of the semiconductor materials supply chain.

Mark and I were on a panel together at SEMICON Korea in February, and he presented an interesting chart to compare the costs of different technologies.  I asked him about this chart as well.

Here’s what Mark had to say:

“Our information is that major Continue reading