IBM , Infineon and Macronix have announced a joint research initiative to explore the potential of phase-change memory (PCM). PCM is touted as a future rival to Flash.
The memory is a relatively new technology that stores data by changing the state of a special material from an amorphous to a crystalline structure, rather than storing data as an electrical charge. While in its early stages, the technology retains data even when power is turned off, shows potential for high speed, high density storage of data and—with a higher write time of 50 nanoseconds on the slow end and potential endurance—is considered a future competitor to Flash.
“Flash is slow to write and erase, so it’s not a memory you want to use in operating mode where you write all the time, and Flash has limited endurance of about 10 to the fifth times [100,000],” notes Bill Gallagher, senior manager of exploratory non-volatile memory at IBM. “Phase change, it seems, will be better in those regards and it’s a memory that works well in very small devices. It isn’t completely proven, but the hope is that when Flash runs into difficulties continuing to scale, phase change memory may be a good option to go to.”
Notably, the partnership brings together IBM and Infineon, a long-time partner to Big Blue and a company with an extensive memory background in high-volume manufacturing, R&D. The agreement also brings in Macronix’s experience in non-volatile memory technologies, a space where IBM is less than well pronounced.
“IBM has a limited sort of product sets,” Gallagher says. “We mostly make embedded memories close to processors. Currently, we don’t have any non-volatile memory in that category because they are usually a fast memory closer to process. So we’ll look at phase change as a memory that is both fast and non-volatile and that would add something to the memory we put on chip close to [embedded] processors .”
The trio joins a growing list of companies involved in PCM, including Philips, Elpida Memory and STMicroelectronics, which claimed it made significant progress toward PCM in June of 2004.
But Gallagher says IBM, Infineon and Macronix aren’t late to start, they are just taking a different approach.
IBM estimates PCM will begin to enter the market in three to five years and could have as large of a presence as Flash 10 to 15 years after that.