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These technologies will blow the lid off data storage

Lucas Mearian | March 10, 2016
Hard disk drive (HDD) and solid-state drive (SSD) makers are about to wow the storage market again.

Most importantly, however, 3D NAND removed the lithography barrier planar (single-level NAND flash) faced as manufacturers shrunk transistors below 15 nanometers in size. The smaller lithography process led to data errors as bits (electrons) leaked between thin-walled cells.

"The big deal is you're not building these [3D NAND] skyscrapers one floor at a time. We know how to go from 24 layers to 36 layers to 48 layers to 64 layers and so on," said Sivaram. "There are no physics limitations to this. What we now have in 3D NAND is a predictable scaling for three and four generations -- something we never had before."

Currently, Samsung, SanDisk and its partner Toshiba and Intel and its partner Micron have been able to create 48-layer 3D NAND, which can store 256Gbits (32GB) in a single chip. While Samsung is the only company mass producing the 48-layer chips, all of the others are planning product launches soon.

SanDisk, Sivaram said, is already planning for 3D NAND chips with more than 100 layers.

"We don't see a natural limit to how high we can go. If I went around and asked how high can we go, [NAND manufacturers] won't tell me we can take it to 96 or 126 layers, and there's a physical limit there," Sivaram said. "This has been our dream for a long time."

While factories to build 3D NAND are vastly more expensive than plants that produce planar NAND or HDDs -- a single plant can cost $10 billion -- Sivaram argued that over time they'll scale down in cost as adoption ramps up.

Pricing is key

While enterprises and consumers alike love capacity -- more is better -- price most often determines adoption.

Intel and its development partner Micron are working on what may be a game changer in the non-volatile flash industry: the Optane chip -- known internally at Intel as 3D XPoint.

While Intel has released little information about what Optane will be, most industry experts believe it is a form of resistive RAM.

Resistive RAM (ReRAM) is able to perform read and write operations using 50 to 100 times less power than NOR flash, which makes it perfect for mobile devices -- even wearables.

ReRAM is based on the "memory resistor" concept, also called memristor. The term memristor was coined by University of California-Berkeley scientist Leon Chua in the early 1970s.

Until memristor, researchers knew of only three basic circuit elements -- the resistor, the capacitor and the inductor. Memristor, which consumed far less energy and offered far greater performance than previous technologies, was the fourth.

Currently, the only company shipping ReRAM products is Adesto Technologies. It recently introduced a new conductive bridging RAM (CBRAM) memory chip for battery-operated or energy-harvesting electronics used in the Internet of Things (IoT) market.


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