In the computer lab of the future, educators no longer will lose valuable instructional time waiting for students’ machines to boot: Within a few years, a new memory chip from IBM Corp. and Infineon Technologies AG reportedly will enable computers to load instantly, at the flick of a switch.
Called Magnetic Random Access Memory (MRAM), this breakthrough technology uses magnetic, rather than electronic, charges to store bits of data. The result is a memory chip that consumes less battery power, stores more data, and retrieves information faster than the high-speed Static RAM and low-cost, high-capacity Dynamic RAM chips used today.
Developers are touting MRAM as the next evolution in computer memory technology. The chips, they contend, will be especially useful in schools and other organizations where time is at a premium and where portable computing devices such as laptops, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and tablet PCs often face problems related to a lack of storage capacity and battery power.
“MRAM has the potential to become the universal memory technology of the future,” said T.C. Chen, vice president of science and technology for IBM Research. “This breakthrough demonstrates that MRAM technology is rapidly maturing and could fundamentally alter the entire memory marketplace within the next few years.”
MRAM’s unique capabilities are gleaned from an attribute called non-volatility. Unlike older-generation DRAM and SRAM memory chips, MRAM does not require a constant influx of electrical power to retain stored data. In other words, when machines using MRAM memory chips are switched off, they do not lose information.
A typical laptop computer, for example, works from a copy of its software stored in memory. When the machine is turned on, a working version of its software is copied from the hard disk drive into memory so the user can access it quickly, Infineon said. Every time the power is turned off and then back on, this copying process must begin anew.
By using MRAM, however, the laptop could work more like other electronic devices such as a television or radio: Turn the power on, and the machine jumps almost instantly to life with settings just as you had left them.
Since MRAM retains information when the power is turned off, computers using it could start up instantly, without waiting for software to boot up, Infineon said.
Non-volatility could be a boon for portable battery power as well. Since MRAM does not require constant jolts of electricity to keep the data intact, it consumes much less energy, extending the battery life of cell phones, PDAs, laptops, and other ubiquitous computing devices often used in schools, developers said.
IBM’s and Infineon’s latest chip also is said to be the smallest of its kind to date. The new MRAM chip packs a high-speed, 128-kilobit punch into 0.18-micron, logic-based process technology. The result, they say, is a memory cell 20 million times smaller than the average pencil eraser.
According to Richard Gordon, an analyst with market research firm Gartner Inc., MRAM technology is poised to replace both SRAM and DRAM memory chips within the next several years. “It’s a technology that takes all of the existing attributes of SRAM, DRAM, and the non-volatility of flash memory and rolls them into one,” he said.
Still, Gordon said it probably will be a while before schools and other consumers will be able to purchase comparably priced, ready-to-use MRAM-equipped devices.
While IBM and Infineon will begin rolling out the chips within the next two years, Gordon said it’s likely to be at least three years before MRAM devices make their way into the mainstream.
“It’s not a no-brainer,” he said. The companies still face the challenge of getting the new MRAM chips to cooperate with various system architectures–not to mention finding a price point that will make MRAM technology an attractive alternative to present-day solutions.
Until then, Gordon said, schools and other consumers undoubtedly will continue searching for ways to balance the inherent benefits of high-speed SRAM technology with the advantages of extended DRAM and higher memory capacity.
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