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A Magnetic Memory Alternative to Hard Disk

Hemos posted more than 8 years ago | from the read-from-the-magnets dept.

258

Dr Occult writes "Finally, a magnetic memory chip has been manufactured in volume and released by the U.S. company Freescale. Christened MRAM (magnetoresistive random-access memory),this chip will hold information even after power has been switched off. From the BBC news article: 'Unlike flash memory, which also can keep data without power, Mram has faster read and write speeds and does not degrade over time,' and 'MRAM chips could one day be used in PCs to store an operating system, allowing computers to start up faster when switched on.'"

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Freescale's PR (5, Informative)

austinpoet (789122) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690743)

Re:Freescale's PR (5, Insightful)

Phreakiture (547094) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690945)

I believe that this is an example of coming full circle [wikipedia.org]

Re:Freescale's PR (1)

arivanov (12034) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691301)

Indeed.

I have seen the damn things only switched off.

I have had to help with a wheelbarrow when chucking one or two into a skip and it was pretty damn hard work. They were from the days when nearly all computing equipment was built to last through WW3.

I can think of very few people around me who have seen one actually in use.

Anyway, what goes around, comes around. Full circle.

NOT a hard drive alternative (5, Insightful)

dsginter (104154) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690745)

MRAM is *not* a hard drive alternative because it needs to be fabricated with traditional chip lithography. Also, MRAM cells are very large, even compared with flash memory.

It would be extremely expensive to create an "MRAM hard drive". This is just more pump and dump for Freescale daytraders.

Re:NOT a hard drive alternative (1)

lawaetf1 (613291) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690800)

Yeah, exactly. Wasn't there a recently release about a 40GB flash module? Obviously flash memory has issues with wearing out after thousands of RW operations but it seems like a more likely candidate for hard drive replacement (especially in laptops) in the near future than this magnetic memory.

Re:NOT a hard drive alternative (1)

GeckoX (259575) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691265)

Do we HAVE to have this discussion, _again_?!

It simply can't. Period. It _could_, in a limited fashion, work along with a hard drive, but if you have virtual memory requirements of ANY sort, flash memory will be thrashed to unuseable in no time. So you'd need a hard drive still anyways for virtual mem, and then you'd still have everything else stored on memory that WILL degrade over time.

Re:NOT a hard drive alternative (5, Informative)

TransEurope (889206) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690819)

_Today_ they are larger. But tomorrow Freescale

plans to shrink their new chips (29nm) under the

scales of the future standard 6T-SRAMs (still 45nm).

http://www.heise.de/newsticker/meldung/75243 [heise.de]

Re:NOT a hard drive alternative (1)

andrewman327 (635952) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691290)

I would like to think that any implementation of this technology would increase the battery life of my laptop and make things a little bit faster.

Re:NOT a hard drive alternative (4, Insightful)

rwven (663186) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690831)

Seeing as everything in this industry gets cheaper, faster, smaller and all around better with time, I wouldn't be surprised in the least if this ends up being a widely used alternative to flash memory. It may take years, but what doesn't... There has been news of this MRAM floating around for about 5 years now (maybe more?)...it's just finally been produced in force.

Re:NOT a hard drive alternative (4, Insightful)

IAmTheDave (746256) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690848)

Don't be so cynical - all progress starts with a product like this. Time will see memory capacity become denser, physical space requirements smaller, etc.

Two years ago 40G flash (hell, my 4G USB drive) would have been laughed at. Progress will continue unabated, so let's let MRAM get its foot in the door, and see where it is in a year or two. RAM sans power requirements is a nice place to be.

Re:NOT a hard drive alternative (1)

TheRaven64 (641858) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691019)

The technology is indeed in its infancy. I've been hearing about MRAM for about a decade, but I believe this is the first time it has been commercially produced.

Having said that, FreeScale are currently producing 4Mbit (512KB) modules. Unless your hard drive is incredibly small, I think that it is going to take a long while before this is a viable replacement. For reference, I was using 512KB flash devices over 12 years ago, and Flash is still not quite available in the quantities (per unit cost) required for hard drive replacement. If this technology matures at the same rate, then look for MRAM 'hard disks' around 2020...

Re:NOT a hard drive alternative (1)

GeckoX (259575) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691168)

I'd view the MRAM hard disks as the long term goal.

Short term, and what I don't see mentioned...non-volatile ram. True instant-on.

And of course, once the price comes down and the memory size goes up, replacement for flash drives since it doesn't have the limited write capacity.

Hard disk replacement would be the end goal, but there are a TON of applications between here and there!

Re:NOT a hard drive alternative (5, Insightful)

morgan_greywolf (835522) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691485)

The key isn't even speed, capacity or size ... it's economics. To be a hard drive replacement, it needs to be as cheap as hard drives. Your 4GB USB drive may be 'cheap' in your mind, but if it were as cheap as any current PATA or SATA hard drive, it would have cost $4, not $40-80 ... IOW, your USB drive is at least 10x and as much as 20x more expensive than a hard drive. For MRAM to become a viable replacement for HDDs, it has to become as cheap as HDDs.

Only time will tell if the economies of scale kick in and make this economically viable.

Re:NOT a hard drive alternative (1)

edrobinson (976396) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690860)

The article did not imply that this was a hard disk. It only said that the MRAM stores data magnetically LIKE a hard drive does...

Re:NOT a hard drive alternative (1)

jcr (53032) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691294)

It would be extremely expensive to create an "MRAM hard drive".

This year, yes. However, there's no particular obstacle to MRAM following the same historical trends as other semiconductor devices. One of these years, we'll have computers that don't need moving parts in their bulk storage systems.

-jcr

Re:NOT a hard drive alternative (3, Informative)

harrkev (623093) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691318)

It would be extremely expensive to create an "MRAM hard drive". This is just more pump and dump for Freescale daytraders.

Bzzzzt. Wrong. Thank you for playing.

OK. You are half-right. It would be expensive to crate an "MRAM hard drive." So, getting 20 gigs of MRAM would cost a small fortune. But this is NOT a "pump-n-dump." This is really cool stuff. I can easily imagine some embedded systems that could really use this stuff. This is non-volatile system memory. The problem with FLASH and EEPROM memory is that the cells wear out after a lot of writing (somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 to 1,000,000 write cycles will give you trouble). For some applications, this is not enough, so you have to resort to battery-backed SRAM. Now there is at least another option.

  • Do you need to store data without having a constant battery backup?
  • Do you need to store a relatively small amount?
  • Will the data be changing rapidly enough to kill a FLASH in short order?
  • Would a hard drive be too big or too power hungry?
If you answered "yes" to all those questions, MRAM might be for you:

Although, really, this seems to solve the exact same problem as Phase-Change RAM [wikipedia.org] .

Re:NOT a hard drive alternative (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15691449)

MRAM doesn't need to be a hard drive alternative; that wasn't even suggested in the summary. It only needs to make *boot-up* near instantaneous, holding enough (10 gigs?) to get the luser to login prompt and then desktop.

Loved the start-up speed of C=64 back then...

However, today's power-saving tech makes it just as good to freeze your machine (compared to turning it off competely) so I'm not sure who will miss "instantaneouds boot-up" -- you'll need to boot-up more seldom. Supposing the driver model of Vista works...

Price? (4, Informative)

bookemdano63 (261600) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690755)

It will be a while before they get their $25 / 4 megabit wholesale price to anywhere close to reasonable.
http://online.wsj.com/public/article/SB11524917130 4801944-v71_ITCad7JIwzqJZ_nfN_pacDg_20060809.html? mod=tff_main_tff_top [wsj.com]

Re:Price? (4, Interesting)

cyfer2000 (548592) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690924)

The major advantage of MRAM is speed. They are extreme high speed nonvolatile RAM, even faster than DRAM. So if you need such a thing, you need to pay for it. Also, the current structure of MRAM is pretty complicated. It is made of multilayers of different metals. Depositing different metals onto silicon wafer is still something nasty though people have been depositing Aluminium and Copper for some time. There are some groups working on magnetic semiconductors, so they use common fabrication method to produce MRAM. So the price of MRAM can drop dramatically if these groups succeed. However, so far, the magnetic semiconductors are even expensive than the multilayer metals structure.

Re:Price? (1)

jcr (53032) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691314)

even faster than DRAM.

Ok, I'm sold. I'd love to have non-volatile main memory in my computers.

-jcr
 

Re:Price? (3, Informative)

barawn (25691) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691051)

That is a reasonable price. Right now, MRAM replaces battery-backed SRAM: like the ZEROPOWER [st.com] series from ST Microelectronics, and a 4-Mbit version (M48Z512A) costs $45 in quantity, and the MRAM chip won't take up huge real estate with a gigantic DIP package.

At $25 in quantity for a 4-Mbit chip, it's about a factor of 5 higher than conventional SRAM. I'd guess that a factor of 5 in cost reduction isn't crazy to expect.

Too bad this chip didn't come out say, five to ten years ago - otherwise you likely would've been seeing it in video game cartridges for a while now.

When? (1)

joshier (957448) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690761)

When will this be available?

Re:When? (2, Informative)

cyfer2000 (548592) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690826)

From what I am remembering, Freescale began small batch sampling of this kind of 4Mbit MRAM two years or 1 and half years ago, and now a available in large batch.

Everything old is new again (4, Funny)

Billosaur (927319) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690779)

Mram chips could one day be used in PCs to store an operating system, allowing computers to start up faster when switched on.

I predict the Commodore 64 will rise again, although this time, it will be 64 Gig!

Re:Everything old is new again (1)

bigtrike (904535) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690939)

Or you could use one of many available methods to achieve this effect, such as using sram, giving the memory power, or storing the contents of memory on disk.

Back to the past.... (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15690789)

Sounds a lot like the old core memory that used to be used in big iron...

Re:Back to the past.... (1)

Rick.C (626083) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691072)

Judging from the photomicrograph on their web site, it's not core. I was suspecting magnetic serial "bubble" memory, which was used in products in the late '80s, but they don't really say what the technology is.

The old "bubble" memory was sandwiched between two strong permanent magnets to force tiny magnetic fields on the die into tiny "bubbles" that could be manipulated electronically. They were moved along an oval "track" on the die and written/read serially at the "start/finish line". I saw a lab film of this taken through a microscope back in the mid-70s, so this is quite old stuff.

Re:Back to the past.... (1)

badfish99 (826052) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691234)

Bubble memory had huge access times, because you had to wait for the bubbles to come past the read/write device before you could read them. In that respect, it was like a conventional hard drive.

This seems to be more like a flash memory chip, which gives you random access to all the memory cells on the chip, at least when it is in read mode.

It's certainly not core memory. That used to get delivered (in one-megabyte quantities) by fork-lift truck.

Re:Back to the past.... (4, Informative)

WebCowboy (196209) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691490)

MRAM is in some ways a modern take on 1960's era "Core Memory" technology. There are similarities between both, however core memory was not semiconductor-based--it was a plane of copper wires woven together with little ferrite rings strung on where wires intersected. As such is is pretty low density: 16 Kbit of core memory took up 250 cm^2 of area. With MRAM the method of operation is the same and it also involves reversing polarity of magnetic fields. However there are no ferrite cores; MRAM consists of a sandwich of conductor grids around memory cells. Like with core memory an entire row of a grid can be written to in one operation--you charge one "row" line on the write grid and all the columns you want to flip and they all change at once.

Reading MRAM is simpler than core memory becasue core memory had no read operation--it had "flip to zero" and "flip to one" and a "sense" line--the sense line would emit a pulse if a core element changed state. To read core memory, you had to do a "flip to zero" and watch the sense line--if it pulsed then a one was in the cell and you had to do a "flip to one" to restore it. If there was no pulse then it was already zero. With MRAM reading simply involves measuring the resistance of the insulating layer of a memory cell (the insulating material has the property where resistance increases as the magnetic field passing through it increases). IIRC there is nothing preventing parallel reads either. MRAMs are also much denser--megabits can fit in 0.25 cm^2

The "MRAM hard drive" thing may be hyperbole right now, but it looks like development of MRAM rechnology is significantly outpacing Moores Law. MRAM is also potentially as fast as SRAM and as dense as SDRAM--without the need for refresh circuitry so designs can be greatly simplified. Further downsizing could make it a good flash replacement. The biggest hurdle could be reduction...

Computer store? Apple Core? Say no more. (1, Funny)

Speare (84249) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690806)

Okay, so next time I'm down at the computer store, I need to buy a better machine.

Yes, an Apple Quartet Quad Core with four extra Core Seed slots for more Cores later. What color? I hear that Mauve has more RAM.

Can anyone say 'Core'. (2, Insightful)

arthurpaliden (939626) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690815)

This held its data for years after it was powered off.

Re:Can anyone say 'Core'. (1)

---- (147583) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691320)

I remember this!

A bit big for today's technology tho.

The Magnetic Core Memory [wikipedia.org] article on Wikipedia states that the technology dates from 1949. I guess that makes this the oldest piece of computer technology that's been "rediscovered".

more vaporware (-1, Flamebait)

NynexNinja (379583) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690842)

We've been hearing vaporware mram chip stories for almost a decade now... When is it going to be on the market for people to purchase and use?

Re:more vaporware (4, Informative)

TransEurope (889206) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690880)

First: freescale aims on the usage of MRAM in embeddet devices and microcontrollers. There will be no MRAM-Harddisk next month in the shops. 2nd: There is not only Freescale. Micromem will produce MRAM-Chips for the Aerospace industry. And IBM/Infineon already have an 16-MBit-MRAM-Chip since last year. There are also Renesas/Toshiba in the race. It's a completely new tech, you heard about years ago, when the first theories about mram came from the labs. But such a thing needs everytime many years to go to the serial production lines.

Re:more vaporware (2, Informative)

Yusaku Godai (546058) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690947)

Did you RTFA? This is the first commercial MRAM product which is being produced in volume. They have customers for it, and they've already built up a stock of the stuff. Can't call it vaporware if it supposedly actually exists somewhere and is ready to be shipped.

Re:more vaporware (2, Informative)

barawn (25691) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690953)

We've been hearing vaporware mram chip stories for almost a decade now... When is it going to be on the market for people to purchase and use?

Now, apparently. That's what this story is about. Here's [freescale.com] a link to the actual chip's spec sheet. Here's [freescale.com] a link to the chip's page on Freescale, where you can order it for $25/chip in 1000 unit quantities.

It's not in any consumer products yet, no, but it is available to purchase, which means it isn't vaporware.

Re:more vaporware (1)

Yusaku Godai (546058) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690973)

Note also that Freescale has close ties to Motorola. I would not be surprised if this starts showing up in consumer electronics before long now.

Re:more vaporware (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15691236)

Note also that Freescale has close ties to Motorola.

In fact, they are the former semiconductor division of Motorola. They were spun off a few years ago.

It doesn't quite seem to be (Re:) more vaporware (1)

beh (4759) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690978)

According to the article:

Freescale has been producing the four-megabit Mram chips at an Arizona factory for two months to build up levels of stock.


It's not like they're saying "we WILL have something tangible", but rather "we HAVE something tangible".

On the other hand - sorry, I don't quite see how these will be in competition with hard-drives, if you see that they are working on 4(!) MEGAbit chips... To Freescale: Call me again when it's 4 GIGAbit chips... ;-) I'm just not convinved I'd want a 1GB harddisk replacement made from 2048 of those chips...

I see those as small stepping stones, but not more, right now.

Re:It doesn't quite seem to be (Re:) more vaporwar (2, Informative)

barawn (25691) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691214)

On the other hand - sorry, I don't quite see how these will be in competition with hard-drives

Right now, they aren't. At that price point, they're competing with battery-backed SRAM (very nicely for the integrated stuff, and it depends on the product for the battery + battery monitor chip + SRAM solution).

Short primer on different memory technologies: SRAM is very fast, very low power, easy to interface, but it needs a battery for data integrity. DRAM is very cheap, but higher power, much harder to interface, and needs not only a battery but a controller for data integrity. EEPROM is everything SRAM is, but nonvolatile but is expensive, and writing requires awkward voltages, can't be done bytewise, and is slow anyway. Flash is similar to EEPROM, but beats it because it's cheaper, doesn't require weird voltages, but writing is still awkward.

The only downside to MRAM currently is its cost - fast and easy reads, fast and easy writes, nothing required to maintain it, and low power to boot. If this becomes available at distributors within a factor of 2 of that $25 price point, there's literally no point to integrated battery-backed SRAM chips anymore. If the price drops by a factor of 2 or so, there's no point to battery-backed SRAM at all.

As the price drops, though, MRAM has the potention to challenge all of those technologies above, as well as hard drives, much like flash is starting to do now.

Re:It doesn't quite seem to be (Re:) more vaporwar (1)

OnlineAlias (828288) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691395)

Why all of the sudden did everyone start talking in Mbits for size of memory? It just forces one to convert it to a known quantity...please, for grandma, its a 500 meg chip.

Is bootup time really that big of an issue? (4, Interesting)

Skynet (37427) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690843)

XP boots in about a minute, and Linux never needs to be rebooted. :)

What other applications could this have besides boot time?

Re:Is bootup time really that big of an issue? (1)

rixkix (205339) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690872)

portable machines

Re:Is bootup time really that big of an issue? (5, Funny)

j00r0m4nc3r (959816) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690886)

Instapr0n(tm)

Re:Is bootup time really that big of an issue? (-1, Flamebait)

Wizard Drongo (712526) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690910)

Yeah. A minute is pretty pathetic. OT I know, but on my Macbook, with a puny 512MB of RAM, OS X loads in 22 seconds (average), yet windowsxp takes on average 1 minute 32 seconds. That's sodding ridiculous. And OS X shuts down, on average in around 12 seconds from the confirm dialog to the hardware off. Windows takes over a minute, varying wildly. Maybe this MRAM will be the magic bullet that makes windows look usable, like the pentium 2 was, then the pentium 3 & 4 were supposed to be, making windows 'faster than ever'. Strangely, just seems as slow as ever. Veering for a moment back on-topic, this MRAM thing does look real cool though, however I'd guess due to fabrication costs and the chip's size vs. capacity, that MRAM will be mostly used in places that flash is today, mp3 players, flash-drives etc. I doubt it'll ever really be used as a hard drive, just as flash chips aren't used as hard drives. Cool if it were though.

Re:Is bootup time really that big of an issue? (2, Interesting)

metarox (883747) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690998)

you could probably get your computer to sleep lowering power consumption to very low values and on a single key-press having everything restored almost instantly.

Re:Is bootup time really that big of an issue? (1)

DrXym (126579) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691081)

It would be interesting to quantify how much wasted time and energy were caused by slow bootups. To me, it makes absolutely no sense that people leave their machines on overnight and perhaps the reason for this is because it then takes 5 mins in the morning for it to start again. I reckon that flash ram in hard drives + versions of Windows / Linux that enable sleep mode (not standby, sleep) by default would save hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars in wasted energy each year.

Re:Is bootup time really that big of an issue? (1)

mwvdlee (775178) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691089)

Hibernating in memory without the risk and power consumption of hibernating in memory.

Re:Is bootup time really that big of an issue? (1)

Brazilian Joe (514100) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691095)

Save power, which means 1)a smaller electricity bill, and 2) longer battery life. Be it your desktop core or a server farm, it could make its way into cache memory if it's fast enough. That is, IF this technology (or an evolution thereof) can be applied directly inside the cpu core design/building process. Of course, swapping your ram to this MRAM is still years away, but if the technology succeeds, it can happen (and everyone wants it to happen).

Also, the PDA/Smartphone crowd would benefit from it too. Instead of having too keep juicing 64+MB of memory, you'll only spend power when you have to change information. Judging for the size (4Mbit), this application is a few years away too, maybe farther than the cache scenario (if there are no serious hurdles to swapping from the current cache technologies into this one), but not as much distant as the desktop/server MRAM-only scenario.

Re:Is bootup time really that big of an issue? (1)

Kythe (4779) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691107)

What other applications could this have besides boot time?

This could potentially (once the storage density grows significantly) compete with flash memory as a longer-lasting, more durable alternative. So I think the potential is obvious in that respect: anything flash could do, this could do better--again, presuming the storage densities can be made comparable.

There's one other potential upside to MRAM: it likely has the same advantages as core memory in high-radiation environments (in other words, radiation that would screw with DRAM/SRAM/Flash memory, or even EPROM). Magnetic memory tends to be immune to such problems. So you could make use of it in space probes and satellites, for example.

Re:Is bootup time really that big of an issue? (1)

jcr (53032) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691347)

Actually, the radiation immunity of core memory is more a function of its size than it being magnetic. The smaller a device is, the easier it its for a single cosmic ray to flip a bit, whether it's storing the bit as a static charge or a magnetic field.

-jcr

Re:Is bootup time really that big of an issue? (3, Interesting)

MrNemesis (587188) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691174)

Personally, I don't give a rats arse about bootup time.

What I do want, however, is good rewritable storage with NO MOVING PARTS! It'll make things like under-the-TV HTPC's much, much more feasible - you have a small ~10GB boot drive for the core OS components, and a big ol' hard drive that spends much of it's time spun down. On top of that, you could have almost instant resume from hibernate

Corporate users would also gain colossal benefits; I know that by far the most common failure I see at work is a dead or dying hard drive, which are a pain to replace in OEM machines which tend to be built so that only people with advanvced degrees it WTF Ergonomics and How To Wire Like A Spider On Drugs can open them. Replace that with a solid state unit with no moving parts and the problem is more or less instantly solved. Heck, depending on its overall reliabilty we might even be able to dump things like RAID in the mid to long term.

Does anyone have any non-fluff stuff about wha power consumption, max transfer and the like is? Since it's MRAM I expect that it'll only need to use power when reading or writing to disc, right? Hence I'd expect power usage to be practically zero - another huge boon for corporate users. Colossal possible bandwidth and low latency are the icing on the cake.

Disclaimer: I know little about MRAM other than what I've read in fluff pieces before. Time to visit Wikipedia...

Re:Is bootup time really that big of an issue? (2, Informative)

fyngyrz (762201) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691382)

Does anyone have any non-fluff stuff about wha power consumption, max transfer and the like is?

35 ns cycle time for read or write (about 28.57 MHz), read modes 50 ma to 80 ma max, write modes 105 ma to 155 ma max, 9 ma to 12 ma max for stanndby (no pins changing state) and 18 ma to 28 ma with pins flying but no selection enabled for the chip. This is with a 4 mbit chip organized as either 8- or 16-bit. Couldn't find a spec for "the like", you'll have to be more specific. :-)

Those specs were abstracted from the PDF data sheet easily found at on this page. [freescale.com]

Re:Is bootup time really that big of an issue? (1)

Rxke (644923) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691179)

Digital camera's. Today the cheap ones are dog slow.

Re:Is bootup time really that big of an issue? (1)

UnknowingFool (672806) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691432)

Hmmm. How about cutting that boot time to seconds instead of minutes? Plus, it can take longer than a minute depending on how much crap you have installed that needs to be loaded at boot. The trend these days is that consumer electronics is becoming more PC like and more PCs are being more like consumer electronics. So in the future, booting your laptop/tablet/PDA device will take no time.

Re:Is bootup time really that big of an issue? (1)

DrLang21 (900992) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691460)

Think beyond laptop and desktop computers. There are plenty of digital devices out there that rely on SRAM.

Given the size requirements... (1)

grasshoppa (657393) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690867)

This won't be replacing harddrives in personal computers for years to come. However, if they can get these things ~6gigs with a far higher reliability rating than harddrives, these would be ideal for corporate use.

I would kill for these where I work.

Re:Given the size requirements... (1)

TheRaven64 (641858) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691032)

They are currently producing 512KB ICs. They need to scale the technology quote a lot before they're even close to 6GB.

I can barely read this! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15690889)

Aren't editors supposed to edit for things like grammar?

What do /. editors do? Stick a pin in an article and throw it on the front page without even reading it?

Vaporware (-1, Troll)

SirCyn (694031) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690895)

1. Think up ideal solution to a problem. One which can't really be solved economically.
2. Press Release saying you've solved the problem cheaply.
3. Profit!
4. Never follow through, cause it would be too expensive.

Never seen that one before:
http://www.google.com/search?&q=site%3Aslashdot.or g+vaporware+hardware [google.com]

Re:Vaporware (2, Informative)

Kythe (4779) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691129)

As was noted above, this is actually being produced, so by definition it isn't vaporware.

The problems MRAM could address are very real, and people have been working on using MRAM/GMR-based memory for a long time for that very reason.

Re:Vaporware (3, Informative)

1stpreacher (848239) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691177)

I don't get the vaporware argument here... They're being SOLD... But aside from that, I see MANY uses for this - first in cell phones, according to this [wikipedia.org] "In February of 2006, Toshiba and NEC announced a 16 megabit MRAM chip with a new "power-forking" design. It achieves a transfer rate of 200 MB/s, with a 34 ns cycle time - the best performance of any MRAM chip. It also boasts the smallest physical size in its class -- 78.5 square millimeters..."


so we're looking at 'about' 3 inches for 16meg (in this case) ... I'd LOVE my phone to be able to use it's memory more quickly, and to be able to sync more quickly with my pc. And that's just the first thing I could think of...

Old news (4, Informative)

dpaton.net (199423) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690911)

Freescale's MRAM technology isn't all that new...it's an old Motorola technology that they kept running with when they were spun off. It's taken them a few years to get going again, but it's already been done [spacedaily.com] for a while.

That said, MRAM ain't a HD replacement yet. No one outside the aerospace industry is using it for storage right now that I'm aware of, and even if someone was, making a large enough FRAM based drive with 4Mb chips is HARD. 2 chips for every MB. 2048 chips for every GB. a 500GB FRAM disk would require 1,024,000 of these chips, requiring nearly 2,500 sqft of PCB space, and more power than a pile of overclocked P4s (~9mA * 3.3V * 1,024,000 chips = 30.4128kW at IDLE). Even if someone could build that, it'd be farking huge, run inconcievably hot, be incredibly power hungry, and sell for an obscenely expensive price, even for the most extr33m gadget hunters.

Wait for 32 and 64Mb chips. Then we'll talk.

Right now I'm too busy working with a serial FRAM from Ramtron [rantron.com] to write more.

Re:Old news (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15691042)

I assume you meant Ramtron [ramtron.com] , not the misspelled "rantron" in the URL.

Re:Old news (1)

Kythe (4779) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691143)

That's good information. Of course, Freescale is now mass-producing the devices, so this really is an advance, commercially speaking.

Still, you're right that the densities really need to increase dramatically to make this useful in anything but a few niche applications.

Re:Old news (1)

cyfer2000 (548592) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691247)

  1. Don't know detail of the chips here. But I believe now it is available at large scale. Also, Freescale has made some progress in their MRAM technology, like use magnesium oxide replace aluminium oxide after they left Motorola. So it is very possible that the chips are different.
  2. I believe the MRAM can reach the density of DRAM or even better very soon. Some Japanese companies are working on some interesting technology in this area. So, replacing HD with MRAM is possible at least in the portable electronics area like iPod in foreseeable future.
  3. If I have non-volatile RAM faster than DRAM, should I think something different. A computer without DRAM and HD at all?
  4. As FRAM, don't think it can compare the speed of MRAM. Due to the speed of ferroelectric phase transition, I think ghz is the ultimate limit of FRAM. But MRAM working Ghz has been shown. Anyway, I don't understand why you are talking about FRAM.
  5. Making a 500GB FRAM component is... You know what I'am going to say.

Re:Old news (1)

dpaton.net (199423) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691539)

I never tried to compare FRAM to MRAM. I'm an embedded guy, so FRAM is just fine for me. A 150nS cycle time might seem slow to the GHz crowd, but for the vast majority of computers on earth (the little ones no one pays attention to in their cars and STBs and phones) it's just fine.

As for the points:
1. They changed the process slightly, but that doesn't mean it's brand new news. I like the Freescale guys a lot, but touting it as a worlds first is misleading.
2. MRAM has had some very impressive scaling reported for a number of years now. Motorola poured an obscene amount of money into it back before they sold their memory businesses off and spun out Freescale. Even after all these years and hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars, we're only getting a 4Mbit chip. Plan on patience.
3. The day I can get a computer that uses no spinning storage and no volatile memory is the day I have the jack installed in my head. It'll happen eventually, I'm sure, but not soon and definitely not cheap. I'm betting military applications will drive it more than foreign innovation.
4. I talked about FRAM partly as a contrast (despite my fat-fingering the link to Ramtron [ramtron.com] ), but mainly because it's what's on my desk right now. A few K of parallel FRAM storage for scratch space, and a couple of big I2C units for storage.
5. Of course. FRAM is for small things.

I'm not trying to be bitter or mean, but the chip isn't at all what the OP thought. It's for embedded systems, and I want people to recognize that.

Re:Old news (1)

barawn (25691) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691352)

a 500GB FRAM disk would require 1,024,000 of these chips, requiring nearly 2,500 sqft of PCB space, and more power than a pile of overclocked P4s (~9mA * 3.3V * 1,024,000 chips = 30.4128kW at IDLE)

The size issue you're right on (based on the current chip, even though the cell size is smaller than SRAM, which means that it is higher density) - but the power usage? C'mon. You just build an address decoder and switch power to the chip that you're selecting. MRAM's power usage is basically the same as SRAM.

But based upon the size (4 MBit) and the price ($25), they're targeting battery-backed SRAM currently. I'm sure they'll target all external SRAM chips next, and then flash as the production scales.

Re:Old news (2, Informative)

dpaton.net (199423) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691437)

That would be right on, but I quoted the CMOS sustained idle current. Write current jumps to 155mA, and read current is 80ish as I recall. Keeping the chips alive but idle is the easiest way to design the system. Switching the power to the chips required to store a chunk of data would require knowing the length and width of the memory required, and then knowing what blocks are free, and then powering on the required chips (with a huge current spike and associated noise), and then making the write. Designing the power switching infrastructure on that many sqft of PCB (damn TSSOP packages) would be impossibly problematic. The design of the chips isn't supportive of anything large scale...these are indeed for cellphone scratch pad use, or for NV storage in other small devices.

And remember, my numbers were only for a 500GB x 1 byte array. That's horribly inefficient. If they can bump the width and depth of the array up, then we can talk. Let's hope they scale it fast and well.

TV not PC (4, Insightful)

ds_job (896062) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690937)

I don't want this in my PC to boot my O/S quicker. I want this in my TV / Video / STB / whatever so that I can turn them off at night and not have to wait for ages for them to be reinitialised / scan for frequencies / whatever they actually do when they are turned on. It would also make me not have to reprogram my favourites and display settings, which currently do not survive a power cycle. Get these into modern A/V technology and we can finally do away with the necessity of standby just to speed up watching the TV in the morning.

Re:TV not PC (1)

austinpoet (789122) | more than 8 years ago | (#15690982)

We can put it into alarm clocks too! then we won't be able to blame a power outage for oversleeping and skipping work. "No sir, I hadn't thought about putting my alarm clock on an UPS system."

maybe we shouldn't put them into alarm clocks.

Re:TV not PC (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15691156)

We can put it into alarm clocks too!


I suppose that might be useful for knowing what time is was when the power went out.



(Yes, I realize you are talking about those momentary 1/10 of a second power flickers that reset the alarm clock to blinkynoon, but couldn't resist)

Re:TV not PC (1)

Jedi Alec (258881) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691255)

I can't do that anyway, I work for the power company...

Re:TV not PC (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15691571)

Don't thay make alarm clocks that take batteries to keep time when the power goies out anymore?

The last alarm clock I bought had that feature and that was over 10 years ago, I just use my phone as an alarm nowadays, so its very unlikely a power cut would affect it.

Re:TV not PC (2, Insightful)

slavik1337 (705019) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691173)

MRAM heating the CRT faster???

Re:TV not PC (1)

poot_rootbeer (188613) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691566)

I find it very strange that your TV does not remember your favorites or display settings after a power cycle.

1. Is it broken?
2. Are you using the unit's power button, or cutting power upstream at a power strip or wall switch? It's possible that the TV is designed in such a way to require a trickle of "standby" power to retain those settings.

Alternative to Hard Disk (2, Funny)

TheVelvetFlamebait (986083) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691016)

Don't you mean Hard Disk Killer?

I bet it's hard to make it very small (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15691083)

To store a bit as an electrostatic charge, you build a tiny capacitor. You can place many of these capacitors adjacent to each other because most of the field exists between the capacitor plates. There is relatively little crosstalk between capacitors. If you place a conductor between capacitors, you can virtually isolate them from each other (Faraday shield).

Magnetic fields are a lot harder to contain. Crosstalk between magnetic devices is relatively high. That means you can't store the data very densly. Magnetic shielding is quite difficult.

I'm not betting on this technology for mainstream use.

Re:I bet it's hard to make it very small (1)

Kythe (4779) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691218)

Actually, that's not true, or rather, it depends upon the technology. GMR-based systems can be made quite dense, since it actually takes quite a strong magnetic field to flip them from one state to another. If I recall correctly (I'd need to review), ironically, the smaller the dimensions, the stronger the field required. Since magnetic fields from the electric current in write lines decrease as the square of the distance from the lines, you don't have to worry all that much about crosstalk at write time, either. And they're read directly by current passing through the devices.

The biggest problem with density is fabrication issues and design of the cells.

Re:I bet it's hard to make it very small (2, Informative)

Kythe (4779) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691251)

Since magnetic fields from the electric current in write lines decrease as the square of the distance from the lines, you don't have to worry all that much about crosstalk at write time, either.

Oops -- slaughtered that one, didn't I? It's been too long since I looked at the equations. Straightfoward Ampere's Law: the decrease is linear, not with the square of the distance.

Still, the decrease is significant enough, and the resistance to switching state high enough, that you don't generally have to worry about write lines inadvertently flipping more than one bit.

Experience with core memory (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15691516)

Cores were quite far apart compared with the size of the core. Making the domains hard to switch protects you from external fields. That's desirable for keeping your credit card from being erased by random magnets. It doesn't provide much benefit for making cores dense. (It does provide a stronger pulse on the read line though.) Hard to switch domains mean that you need a bigger field to switch them. Thus, it doesn't mean that you can place the cores closer together.

The magnetic domains on a hard disk platter are quite close together but the disk doesn't have to contain circuitry with its resultant currents and fields. The hard disk successfully keeps all fields adjacent to the gap in the head.

The other limitation is actually thermal. The heat generated by the current necessary to switch domains causes thermal vibration that can cause the domains to switch. If the domains are harder to switch, the current goes up and so does the heat.

Article misses the point almost completely... (4, Informative)

Gadzinka (256729) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691100)

I am not really suprised, that no one bothered to google for MRAM, not even tried to look it up in WP [wikipedia.org] . What's missing in the article and most of the comments is that MRAM is one of those holy grails that most of the industry is chasing, because it promises great returns on investment. Basically MRAM (theoretically) can be:
  • as fast as SRAM (i.e. cache in your processor)
  • as small (i.e. as hight density) as DRAM; single MRAM memory cell is two magnets instead of two conductors of capacitor in DRAM, but the (theoretical) size is of the same order of magnitude
  • non-volatile like Flash, but with random access and orders of magnitude faster, w/o "write penalty" and w/o erase/write cycles limit
  • much less energy-hungry than SRAM, DRAM and Flash while working; when not working it can keep information at least as well as Flash
It's in development since the eighties and it will take time before we "get there" but it is possible, that one day MRAM could replace cache, main memory and memory cards in our computers.

When? I have no idea, but AFAIR transistors didn't get from prototype to 65nm in a decade. Hopefully engineergs and managers in some semiconductor companies have longer attention span than an avarage slashdot reader.

Robert

Re:Article misses the point almost completely... (1)

jandrese (485) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691440)

The problem is that MRAM always seems to be 20 years behind SRAM in the cost/mb department. The problem is that these guys are shooting at a moving target, and they're barely keeping up. As a SRAM killer I don't expect to hear much from these guys for awhile, however in specalized roles (especially for stuff that's currrently handled with SRAM and a backup battery) I can see some value in this technology.

Re:Article misses the point almost completely... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15691528)

not even tried to look it up in WP

I don't have WordPerfect anymore, you insensitive clod.

Still pretty small (2, Informative)

wonkavader (605434) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691114)

Currently, it's 256K x 16-Bit

Here's the datasheet link: http://www.freescale.com/files/microcontrollers/do c/data_sheet/MR2A16A.pdf [freescale.com]

Re:Still pretty small (1)

ooze (307871) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691213)

Well, but it could be used as a cache for other permanent storage like flash or a hd. This could have strong improvements in database performance especially in transaction management.

Not likely to replace RAM (3, Insightful)

tygerstripes (832644) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691175)

This would be wonderful as a RAM replacement IF it scaled up enough. Trouble is, RAM has been a necessary computer component for years, so it was inevitable that it would get cheaper & smaller as the necessary manufacturing processes were refined.

This has an awfully long way to come, so it's not going to be adopted wide-scale as a RAM replacement in PCs - at least not straight away. How long would it take the production of this stuff to get up to a competitive scale?

It might work its way in eventually:

1. Small MRAM chips used in phones, PDAs, A/V devices to store state, speeding up boot-time.
2. Pervades handheld-electronics market - becomes ubiquitous enough to scale up and improve manufacturing processes
3. Eventually finds some server-use to improve operation (maybe mirroring RAM periodically to recover quickly from crash, whatever)
4. Finally works its way onto desktop motherboards
(5. Profit?)

Seriously though, this is hardly going to make waves for some time.

Core Memory Redux? (1)

sboyko (537649) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691195)

It's core memory [wikipedia.org] all over again! But in a smaller package.

Did you know core memory was hand-made?

Seriously, I can see some application for this between flash memory and hard drives, but it will take some time to get the costs down.

I was alive in the 1980s (1)

ajs318 (655362) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691225)

I was alive and mucking about with computers in the 1980s and the "next big thing" was always going to be magnetic bubble memory. That never materialised. The closest thing I remember, apart from endless articles oversimplifying how the "bubbles" "moved along" like an old-fashioned drum memory, was a preview of a portable computer which was going to be built using bubble memory.

What I'd really like to see is a magnetic memory device using the same remanence phenomena of which Gutmann spoke in his paper on secure deletion. It ought to be possible to store several bits {possibly an infinite number?} in each location, on the basis that storing new data does not completely obliterate the old data. I have never seen anything like that in practice, except an old open-reel tape recorder with a "trick recording" button which disconnected the erase head, allowing you to e.g. play an instrument and then record your voice over the top.

Slow Bubbles (5, Interesting)

Doc Ruby (173196) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691244)

I've been hearing about these kinds of devices since "bubble memory [wikipedia.org] .

Why can't I get a motherboard with 500MB Flash for storing an image of system memory exactly after the OS is loaded and initialized, that is blitted over to RAM and then tweaked (system clock, network counters, etc) in a few milliseconds? All the "loading" from storage to RAM includes minutes of computation like a second "compilation" that's practically identical every time I start the machine. How much computing power is wasted on that redundant exercise every day, around the world? I'd like to reinit only when the startup becomes corrupt, which a "known good" ROM instance could avoid better than the current chaotic process.

Re:Slow Bubbles (1)

sgt scrub (869860) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691484)

Exactly what I was thinking. I read the posts regarding fast boot times, and the lack for instant on. What some people fail to realize is "Boot to Last State". If we had the ability to dump the state of ram to Flash then back to system ram, like you just pointed out, instant on would take on a whole new meaning. Also, falling back to a standard boot for recovery would be no yeld less data loss if the flashed memory was used like a journal is to a file system.

A major limitation... (2, Interesting)

michaelvkim (981938) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691245)

If data is stored as magnetic bits, wouldn't a very small magnet corrupt all this data? Computer users are warned to keep magnets away from your hard drive due to data loss, but it seems this would magnify (get it?) that problem tenfold.

too much memory!!!!!! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15691269)

I wonder if it will run vista?

640k is enough for anyone

From the CNN writeup on this... (2, Insightful)

Experiment 626 (698257) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691348)

"The first markets for MRAM chips are likely to be in automotive and industrial settings, where durability is critical. Tehrani said they would also be suited for data-logging devices, such as airline black boxes that store data on aircraft performance and must be recoverable after a crash."

CNN.com article [cnn.com]

Because we all know that the best way to test out new and unproven technologies is in critical applications where lives are on the line.

So?? (1)

epp_b (944299) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691405)

...allowing computers to start up faster when switched on
So?? I thought Vista was supposed to boot up, like, instantly!!

Great hard drive companion (3, Insightful)

egarland (120202) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691409)

Hard drive controlers could use this type of memory for write caching without risking losing data. This is huge for RAID controlers since they could now lose their bulky batery packs and time limits on cached data integrity. This also has nice implications for write buffering in hard drive controlers since it could be done without the OS even knowing or caring. It would allow for out-of-order writes on drives where the controler decides what gets written first and even if it gets written at all without risking data integrity.

This is also huge for tiny devices that need very little local storage but do need it. Tiny linux boxes with 64MB MRam hard drives could be quite useful.

If we make mram visible to filesystems, they could decide to store their core data structures, directories, and inodes in mram space so that access to the start of each file could require only 1 drive seek.

Core corrupted (2)

davidwr (791652) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691436)

Everything old [wikipedia.org] is new [wikipedia.org] again. Thanks to suspend-to-ram/disk [Hibernate for you Windows users] the problem of "corrupted core" is more real than in the days of daily shutdowns. This will only make it worse.

Without volitile RAM, rebooting a computer will become rare [good] but perceived as a pain in the ass [bad]. Not as bad as reinstalling your OS [very bad] but bad nonetheless.

For Some Reason... (1)

Valthan (977851) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691473)

I just don't think they will ever be able to make the capacity big enough to hold an install of Vista and all of the security updates associated with it, and that is just the OS, no programs, those would be on a separate solid-state platter... :P

I'd rather see MRAMs used ... (2, Interesting)

constantnormal (512494) | more than 8 years ago | (#15691519)

... in place of flash memory to provide that speedy boot-up. At least MRAM would not have an upper limit on cycles of use as flash memory does. There's also the possibility that MRAMs could be used in a memory hierarchy in place of power-hungry SRAMs, providing a faster layer of memory than DRAMs for a lot less power consumption. And finally, there is the possibility of re-designing an OS to take advantage of this new form of non-volatile memory, putting most-frequently referenced objects or objects that are essential to running the system in MRAM to take advantage of either the speed or non-volatile aspects of it.

I think Freescale has produced this because they don't know how to market it, and are willing to listen and see how what marketplace does with a device having these unique characteristics.

It will, of course, get smaller, cheaper, faster over time. Whether it gets cheaper fast enough to open new markets remains an open question.
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