I’ve always enjoyed watching the little twirling timer and Apple logo and hearing the “bing!” sound as my Mac boots-up (Windows users, you have your equivalent though it’s not as pretty.) But now with a new chip breakthrough from Toshiba boot-ups may soon become a thing of the past.
Toshiba is due to announce data on its breakthrough FeRAM technology at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference this week, and the chips claim a bunch of records: They’re apparently the world’s highest-density, highest-bandwidth non-volatile RAM modules.
FeRAM has been researched for years–it’s an alternative technology to the DRAM-based technology used in existing memory chips. A DRAM chip stores data as electrical charge stored on a tiny capacitor, each one with its own array of transistors and circuits. But since conventional capacitors “leak” charge when unpowered, DRAM is a volatile storage medium. Just switch it off, and the semiconductor capacitors lose their charge and what’s stored on the chip is forgotten.
It’s a key reason for hard drives, to archive the OS and store data between computer use sessions. They’re necessary, but slower to read from and write-to than RAM is, and that’s why PCs take a few moments to spin into action when you turn them on.
But FeRAM–ferroelectric RAM–uses adapted semiconductor capacitors that incorporate a ferroelectric material like lead zirconium titanate. When a particular memory bit is written to, the material inside the capacitor actually realigns its structure as it stores the charge. When the device is powered off, that structure remains until the power is re-applied.
The practical upshot of this is that if you store information on an FeRAM chip it’s there even when the device is turned off. Toshiba’s research has pushed the technology to the point where it can produce 128 megabit chips, fabricated at 120nm, that have access rates of 1.6 gigabytes per second, and access times of just 43 nanoseconds. Compared to the 20+ megabytes per second and 30+ microsecond access time of existing NAND-flash storage chips, this is rocket-powered stuff.
Essentially if FeRAM becomes the norm in computers, then it’ll spell the end of boot-up delays. You’ll simply turn on your PC and it’ll pretty much instantaneously be available to work as the OS and other software just pours off the FeRAM chips. Some notebook PCs already incorporate a primitive version of this with “instant on” options, but in this case it’s through use of a small NAND flash storage drive, with the associated slowness of that technology. FeRAM could change how you view your computer, and will be better for the environment too: When your PC goes into sleep mode all it will have to do is power off most of its functions, saving power consumption, and when it wakes it’ll instantly recover what it was doing.
Great for users and for the planet, but I’ll probably miss that little twirling timer icon.