'Holy Grail' UltraRAM Blends RAM and Flash Memory

John Lister's picture

A new form of computer memory has won an award for innovation. UltraRAM combines the performance of ordinary computer memory with the long-term storage of flash.

Most memory in a computer is DRAM (dynamic random access memory). This holds data that the computer processor is most likely to need to access imminently. It's a little like having paper documents on a desktop rather than in a filing cabinet: the cabinet has much more room, but it takes some time to walk to the cabinet to get the information, versus having it right on the desktop.

One of the key drawbacks of DRAM is that it stores data through a capacitor and transistor set up in away that requires a fresh electronic charge almost constantly. That means that once the power supply is cut, the data is lost - which makes DRAM volatile. In this example, the cabinet represents the hard drive in a PC and the desktop represents DRAM chips.

On the other hand, there's also flash memory. This works in a different way such that the data remains in place even when there's no power supplied to the chip. However, reading from and writing to flash is thousands of times slower than DRAM. As a result, flash is more commonly used for portable storage devices such as USB thumb drives.

Low Power, Long Lasting

Researchers at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom created a technology that they call UltraRAM. The university has created a business to commercialize the technology. That company, Quinas, has just won an award for the "most innovative flash memory startup."

The solution is not straightforward: Electronics Weekly explains that it "exploits the quantum-mechanical effect of resonant tunneling, replacing the oxide tunnel barrier in flash with a triple-barrier resonant tunneling structure." (Source: electronicsweekly.com)

All the techno babble aside, what matters to users is the results. UltraRAM has a quick read and write speed similar to DRAM while using less power. However, it can store data without a power supply for longer than flash, with the creators estimating a 1,000 year lifespan.

Data Centers May Benefit

The initial use is likely to be in data centers where it could mean having data permanently available for quick access while significantly cutting power use. That's always a major challenge for data centers, both in the cost of electricity and the need to cool equipment.

In the longer term, it could mean consumer computers (particularly laptops) would no longer need special sleep or hibernation modes. Instead, users could switch on a device and get straight back to work with virtually no bootup time. (Source: pcgamer.com)

The big question is cost, however. It's unclear yet whether mass-scale production would bring down prices to make them truly competitive with DRAM and flash.

What's Your Opinion?

Would "instant" start-up make a big difference to your computing? Is this likely to be a useful consumer technology? What's the longest you've stored data and still been able to use it?

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Dennis Faas's picture

I often wondered how much longer after NVMe's were introduced that they would eventually be able to speed it up fast enough to essentially replace DRAM - and here we have our answer, though it appears the technology is technically different. Imagine having 2TB of computer primary memory (RAM) and no need for a hard drive! I see the hugest implications with things like artificial intelligence because it will be able to access the data even faster and with little power consumption.

Focused100's picture

Ram is following the classic consumer electronics curve.
UltraRam might follow it as well.
Better, faster smaller and MAYBE cheaper in the long run.