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May 01, 2008

Beginning of the next memory S-curve?

How about an iPod that holds millions of songs. In fact, why not all of them? Want to replace that hard drive with a solid state one with 1000 times the capacity? Oh, and everything stays nice and stable when the power goes off, for far longer than today's flash memory. Like to guess how far away this is?

Technology development often exhibits an S-Curve pattern; first you get the slow buildup as it takes time to get an idea of the ground, then increasing growth, and finally a slowdown of diminishing returns. Then eventually you hit the start of the next "S" and you're soon back into exponential growth. Sometimes you're lucky enough to spot the next "S" starting, and I think recent developments are pointing to a new "S" in computer memory.

S-Curve diagram
(S-Curve diagram by Laird Close, University of Arizona)

The last few weeks saw three major announcements on the development of memory and solid-state storage.

First of all, IBM Research announced it was close to cracking 'Racetrack' nano-magnetic memory. This proof-of-concept technology would eventually replace flash memory and hard drives, with vastly greater capacity.

Next up, researchers from Daresbury and Glasgow have announced developments that could increase memory capacity even further, to "hundreds of thousands of times more capacity" using innovative nanotechnology (Nature Nanotechnology, 3, 289 - 233 (2008) ).

Finally, HP Labs have added the "memristor" to the basic building blocks of electronics. Memristors are resitstors that store information even after losing power, and do so for longer than conventional flash memory. Whats more, memristors are in principle far simpler and easier to make than flash memory, which could also accelerate the trend towards ubiquitous solid-state memory.

Now, whats our plan for when students start turning up with something the size of today's Google sat in their pocket?

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