September 28, 2006

Intel preparing potential replacement for Flash Memory

photo: Intel Phase Change Memory (PCM) ChipsIntel literally has, in hand, the first prototype of a new type of nonvolatile memory chip that its executives think could someday supplant flash memory and thus change the face of the industries such as cellular phones, music players and possibly even PCs.

Intel, as part of a lengthy joint venture with ST Microelectronics, has produced the first Phase Change Memory or PCM chips—nonvolatile memory chips that work well for both executing code and storing large amounts of data, giving it a superset of the capabilities of both flash memory and dynamic random access memory.

This means it can both execute code with performance, store larger amounts of memory and also sustain millions of read/write cycles.

It's necessary to invest in technologies such as PCM because flash memory will eventually hit a wall in which it can no longer scale with silicon manufacturing.

"This is pretty exciting stuff," said Ed Doller, chief technology officer for Intel's Flash Memory Group, based in Folsom, Calif., during an interview with eWEEK. photo: Intel Phase Change Memory (PCM) Chips

"We're getting pretty close to the limits [of fabricating silicon] in developing NOR and NAND flash memory; our engineers are wondering 'What's next?'"

Doller reached for an often-used but appropriate saying: "This is a case in which 'Necessity is the mother of invention' is very true. We were forced to look for something else, completely different. That's why we decided to invest in PCM.

"There are definitely limits to what you can do with our current flash methodology. There needs to be a complete quantum leap somewhere along the line to push everything forward. We believe PCM are going to be that quantum leap."

Moreover, PCM has the potential to go into production before many other flash alternatives, he said.

During the interview, Doller produced what he said was one of the very first PCM wafers, containing numerous 128-megabit PCM chips produced in a ST Microelectronics chip plant in Agrate, Italy, and sent to him just hours before.

Dollar opened a round, black plastic container to reveal several foam protective separations around a 10-inch round wafer of chips safely packaged in between.

The wafer represented Intel and ST Microelectronics' first grasp of the new type of nonvolatile memory chip.

PCM chips use the same material, chalcogenide, that's used inside to store data in a rewritable optical discs.

But instead of using a laser to change the properties of the material and thus create the zeros and ones that make up data, the chips use electricity that flows through a resistor.

The resistor heats up and does the job of the laser, changing the material's properties to represent a zero or a one.

The effort is the "culmination of [work by] some of the smartest materials guys on the planet," Doller said. "Over the years, this has an opportunity to be a very large memory technology."

Indeed, it has the potential to could replace both NAND—flash memory designed primarily for data storage—and NOR flash memory designed for executing code with one type of chip, streamlining manufacturing processes.

PCM chips, meanwhile, can be made backward-compatible to NOR flash—allowing them to fit into the same sockets—and also be produced using CMOS (complimentary metal oxide silicon) processes used by Intel and other chip makers in high volume today.

To be sure, "From a technology standpoint, [the 128-megabit chips] are a proof of concept product.

However, Intel can begin sampling them to customers soon, and it could begin selling them in the next couple of years, Doller said.

Intel already is the world's largest producer of NOR flash memory chips, which are used in cellular telephones and in many embedded applications.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company is also a big maker of higher-end NAND chips, although not quite on the same scale as Samsung and Toshiba.

Flash memory microprocessors are becoming ubiquitous, and industry experts expect them to be populating laptops, automobiles and a number of other products in the near future for the next five to 10 years.

Read more here about flash memory microprocessors.

But Intel believes PCM chips can pick up the ball where flash leaves off and go a lot further, due to inherent physical advantages that flash doesn't possess.

"PCM is like a super set of NOR or NAND flash," Doller said. "It's almost nirvana for an engineer. It reads fast, writes fast—it does everything faster."

Doller said that Intel will begin sampling PCM chips to customers over the next several months.

"But we're still years away from seeing these things in products," Doller said. "Will we be selling these? Yes. When will the volume start crossing over and above our current flash output? Probably not until 2010 or so."

Meanwhile, the arrival of PCM doesn't' mean that Intel will abandon flash memory. The chip maker will continue offering NAND and NOR flash memory as long as possible.

But PCM does appear to be flash's eventual successor for Intel.

Doller said the company wasn't spending any time or money with other flash-related technologies, such as MRAM (Magnetic RAM) at technology that Motorola has been focusing on.