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IBM's phase-change memory is faster than flash and more reliable than RAM

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IBM Research

IBM today announced a more efficient way to use phase-change memory, a breakthrough that could help transition electronic devices from standard RAM and flash to a much faster and more reliable type of storage. Phase-change memory, or PCM, is a type of non-volatile optical storage that works by manipulating the behavior of chalcogenide glass, which is how data is stored on rewriteable Blue-ray discs. A electrical current is applied to change PCM cells from an amorphous to crystalline structure, allowing you to store 0s and 1s in either state while the application of low voltage can read the data back.

The issue in the past has been PCM's limited capacity and high cost; you can typically only store one 1 bit per cell. That makes it less useful for main memory applications like laptop or mobile phone storage. Yet IBM researchers discovered how to store 3 bits per cell by tinkering with how the crystals react to high temperatures, which are required to tap into multiple states for PCM cells. The jump is significant "because at this density, the cost of PCM will be significantly less than DRAM and closer to flash," Haris Pozidis, IBM's manager of non-volatile memory research, wrote in a statement.

IBM says the applications range from replacing RAM in modern desktop computers to using a hybrid form of PCM and flash memory to substantially boost speeds in mobile devices. "For example, a mobile phone's operating system could be stored in PCM, enabling the phone to launch in a few seconds," the company wrote in a press release. "In the enterprise space, entire databases could be stored in PCM for blazing fast query processing for time-critical online applications, such as financial transactions."

There's even cloud-based artificial intelligence applications that could benefit from PCM. "Machine learning algorithms using large datasets will also see a speed boost by reducing the latency overhead when reading the data between iterations," the company wrote. Compared with flash, which can withstand about 3,000 write cycles, PCM can withstand up to 10 million cycles, making it a potentially industry-changing technology for data centers.