Here Come the Memory Wars

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    The enterprise has seen many a storage war over the decades, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say many battles of a single storage war. The latest of these pitted the rival cloud providers in a contest to see who could deliver more capacity at the lowest cost.

    But even as this phase is winding down, a new one is emerging for the heart and soul of Big Data and IoT data preservation. And the field of battle is no longer on the drive level but in memory subsystems, which are proving to be a lot more versatile than their traditional roles as high-speed cache and random access devices would suggest.

    The big breakthrough came earlier this week when IBM announced major improvements to its phase-change memory (PCM) technology that boosts performance way past Flash technologies on a number of key parameters while maintaining relative price parity. According to a paper presented to the IEEE International Memory Workshop in Paris, the company says it can now reliably store three bits per cell in a standard 64k-cell array that has been pre-cycled more than a million times and maintained at temperatures as high as 167°F. This provides a write endurance that is a thousand times better than Flash while at the same time maintaining random access and write-in-place capabilities that Flash does not have. The company plans to implement the technology as a cluster-level and data center solution, pairing it with low-latency networking for data-intensive applications. (Disclosure: I provide web content services for IBM.)

    This comes barely a month after Intel showed off its new Optane drives built around the 3D XPoint memory system developed jointly with Micron. Although questions were raised over the fairness of the demo that compared a SATA-based SSD-to-SSD video transfer to an Optane-to-Optane transfer using an undisclosed interface (probably PCIe, says PC World’s Gordon Mah), it is still pretty clear that the Optane is fast and doesn’t suffer as badly from performance issues when the cache gets maxed out. While many of the system details are still under wraps, Intel says one innovation is that the design allows for byte-level data access as opposed to the block-level functionality of NAND Flash, which like IBM’s PCM, boosts performance about 1,000-fold.

    But while both technologies rely on a triple-phase architecture to store data, researchers at NYU and Bar-Ilan University in Israel are already setting their sights on a six-state structure that, ironically, relies on roughly the same magnetic elements that populated the earliest tape drives. As reported by’s Lisa Zyga, the design does not involve simple layering of magnetic elements but the introduction of a triple-cross ellipse pattern on a single layer. Wherever the ellipses overlap, there are six stable magnetic orientations, which also happen to run parallel to the long axis of each ellipse in two opposite directions. The design also uses “spin-orbit torque switching” to switch between magnetic states, which allows for a high degree of density while still maintaining isolation, and therefore data integrity, between states.

    The fuel for all this activity is the rapid uptake of Big Data and the voluminous, sensor-driven data streams of the IoT, says Redis Labs’ Yiftach Schoolman. Now that platforms like Hadoop allow commodity servers to act as shared storage, scale out infrastructure can be had at a fraction of the cost of traditional networked storage. The new classes of memory-based storage are pushing the economics of data infrastructure even further, not only pushing beyond the price/performance of Flash but taking a bead on DRAM as well. With real-time performance the next milestone in Big Data analytics, even slight differences in microseconds can make or break an application.

    The resilience of the tech industry has always been a marvel, and memory advancements are just the latest example of its ability to craft innovative solutions in the nick of time. At the moment, high-speed, in-memory solutions are being reserved for the most performance-dependent operations. But if past is prologue, it won’t be long before they trickle down to more mundane functions.

    By then, of course, the cutting-edge in storage will really knock our socks off.

    Arthur Cole writes about infrastructure for IT Business Edge. Cole has been covering the high-tech media and computing industries for more than 20 years, having served as editor of TV Technology, Video Technology News, Internet News and Multimedia Weekly. His contributions have appeared in Communications Today and Enterprise Networking Planet and as web content for numerous high-tech clients like TwinStrata and Carpathia. Follow Art on Twitter @acole602.

    Arthur Cole
    Arthur Cole
    With more than 20 years of experience in technology journalism, Arthur has written on the rise of everything from the first digital video editing platforms to virtualization, advanced cloud architectures and the Internet of Things. He is a regular contributor to IT Business Edge and Enterprise Networking Planet and provides blog posts and other web content to numerous company web sites in the high-tech and data communications industries.

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