IBM develops 'instantaneous' memory, 100x faster than flash

You've got to hand it to IBM's engineers. They drag themselves into work after their company's 100th birthday party, pop a few Alka-Seltzers and then promptly announce yet another seismic invention. This time it's a new kind of phase change memory (PCM) that reads and writes 100 times faster than flash, stays reliable for millions of write-cycles (as opposed to just thousands with flash), and is cheap enough to be used in anything from enterprise-level servers all the way down to mobile phones. PCM is based on a special alloy that can be nudged into different physical states, or phases, by controlled bursts of electricity. In the past, the technology suffered from the tendency of one of the states to relax and increase its electrical resistance over time, leading to read errors. Another limitation was that each alloy cell could only store a single bit of data. But IBM employees burn through problems like these on their cigarette breaks: not only is their latest variant more reliable, it can also store four data bits per cell, which means we can expect a data storage "paradigm shift" within the next five years. Combine this with Intel's promised 50Gbps interconnect, which has a similar ETA, and data will start flowing faster than booze from an open bar on the boss's tab. There's more detailed science in the PR after the break, if you have a clear head.

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Made in IBM Labs: IBM Scientists Demonstrate Memory Breakthrough for the
First Time

• Reliable multi-bit phase-change memory technology demonstrated
• Scientists achieved a 100 times performance increase in write latency
compared to Flash
• Enables a paradigm shift for enterprise IT and storage systems,
including cloud computing by 2016

ZURICH, June 30, 2011 – For the first time, scientists at IBM Research have
demonstrated that a relatively new memory technology, known as phase-change
memory (PCM), can reliably store multiple data bits per cell over extended
periods of time. This significant improvement advances the development of
low-cost, faster and more durable memory applications for consumer devices,
including mobile phones and cloud storage, as well as high-performance
applications, such as enterprise data storage. With a combination of
speed, endurance, non-volatility and density, PCM can enable a paradigm shift for enterprise IT and storage systems within the next five years.

Scientists have long been searching for a universal, non-volatile memory
technology with far superior performance than Flash – today's most
ubiquitous non-volatile memory technology. The benefits of such a memory
technology would allow computers and servers to boot instantaneously and
significantly enhance the overall performance of IT systems. A promising
contender is PCM that can write and retrieve data 100 times faster than
Flash, enable high storage capacities and not lose data when the power is
turned off. Unlike Flash, PCM is also very durable and can endure at least
10 million write cycles, compared to current enterprise-class Flash at
30,000 cycles or consumer-class Flash at 3,000 cycles. While 3,000 cycles
will out live many consumer devices, 30,000 cycles are orders of magnitude
too low to be suitable for enterprise applications. (see chart for

"As organizations and consumers increasingly embrace cloud-computing models
and services, whereby most of the data is stored and processed in the
cloud, ever more powerful and efficient, yet affordable storage
technologies are needed," states Dr. Haris Pozidis, Manager of Memory and
Probe Technologies at IBM Research – Zurich. "By demonstrating a multi-bit
phase-change memory technology which achieves for the first time
reliability levels akin to those required for enterprise applications, we
made a big step towards enabling practical memory devices based on
multi-bit PCM."

Multi-level Phase Change Memory Breakthrough

To achieve this breakthrough demonstration IBM scientists in Zurich used
advanced modulation coding techniques to mitigate the problem of short-term
drift in multi-bit PCM, which causes the stored resistance levels to shift
over time, which in turn creates read errors. Up to now, reliable retention
of data has only been shown for single bit-per-cell PCM, whereas no such
results on multi-bit PCM have been reported.

PCM leverages the resistance change that occurs in the material -- an alloy
of various elements -- when it changes its phase from crystalline –
featuring low resistance – to amorphous – featuring high resistance – to
store data bits. In a PCM cell, where a phase-change material is deposited
between a top and a bottom electrode, phase change can controllably be
induced by applying voltage or current pulses of different strengths.
These heat up the material and when distinct temperature thresholds are
reached cause the material to change from crystalline to amorphous or vice

In addition, depending on the voltage, more or less material between the
electrodes will undergo a phase change, which directly affects the cell's
resistance. Scientists exploit that aspect to store not only one bit, but
multiple bits per cell. In the present work, IBM scientists used four
distinct resistance levels to store the bit combinations "00", "01" 10" and

To achieve the demonstrated reliability, crucial technical advancements in
the "read" and "write" process were necessary. The scientists implemented
an iterative "write" process to overcome deviations in the resistance due
to inherent variability in the memory cells and the phase-change materials:
"We apply a voltage pulse based on the deviation from the desired level and
then measure the resistance. If the desired level of resistance is not
achieved, we apply another voltage pulse and measure again – until we
achieve the exact level," explains Pozidis.

Despite using the iterative process, the scientists achieved a worst-case
write latency of about 10 microseconds, which represents a 100x performance
increase over even the most advanced Flash memory on the market today.

For demonstrating reliable read-out of data bits, the scientists needed to
tackle the problem of resistance drift. Because of structural relaxation
of the atoms in the amorphous state, the resistance increases over time
after the phase change, eventually causing errors in the read-out. To
overcome that issue, the IBM scientists applied an advanced modulation
coding technique that is inherently drift-tolerant. The modulation coding
technique is based on the fact that, on average, the relative order of
programmed cells with different resistance levels does not change due to

Using that technique, the IBM scientists were able to mitigate drift and
demonstrate long- term retention of bits stored in a subarray of 200,000
cells of their PCM test chip, fabricated in 90-nanometer CMOS technology.
The PCM test chip was designed and fabricated by scientists and engineers
located in Burlington, Vermont; Yorktown Heights, New York and in Zurich.
This retention experiment has been under way for more than five months,
indicating that multi-bit PCM can achieve a level of reliability that is
suitable for practical applications.

The PCM research project at IBM Research – Zurich will continue to be
studied at the recently opened Binnig and Rohrer Nanotechnology Center.
The center, which is jointly operated by IBM and ETH Zurich as part of a
strategic partnership in nanosciences, offers a cutting-edge
infrastructure, including a large cleanroom for micro- and nanofabrication
as well as six "noise-free" labs, especially shielded laboratories for
highly sensitive experiments.

The paper "Drift-tolerant Multilevel Phase-Change Memory" by N. Papandreou,
H. Pozidis, T. Mittelholzer, G.F. Close, M. Breitwisch, C. Lam and E.
Eleftheriou, was recently presented by Haris Pozidis at the 3rd IEEE
International Memory Workshop in Monterey, CA.