[ExI] A disruptive technology
John K Clark
jonkc at att.net
Tue Sep 11 15:25:18 UTC 2007
>From the New York Times September 11, 2007
Reshaping the Architecture of Memory
By John Markoff
SAN JOSE, Calif. - The ability to cram more data into less space on a
memory chip or a hard drive has been the crucial force propelling
consumer electronics companies to make ever smaller devices.
It shrank the mainframe computer to fit on the desktop, shrank it
again to fit on our laps and again to fit into our shirt pockets.
Now, if an idea that Stuart S. P. Parkin is kicking around in an TBM lab
here is on the money, electronic devices could hold 10 to 100 times the
data in the same amount of space. That means the iPOD that today
can hold up to 200 hours of video could store every single TV program
broadcast during a week on 120 channels.
The tech world, obsessed with data density, is taking notice because Mr.
Parkin has done it before. An I.B.M. research fellow largely unknown outside
a small fraternity of physicists, Mr. Parkin puttered for two years in a lab
in the early 1990s, trying to find a way to commercialize an odd magnetic
effect of quantum mechanics he had observed at supercold temperatures. With
the help of a research assistant, he was able to alter the magnetic state of
tiny areas of a magnetic data storage disc, making it possible to store and
retrieve information in a smaller amount of space. The huge increases in
digital storage made possible by giant magnetoresistance, or GMR, made
consumer audio and video iPods, as well as Google-style data centers, a
Mr. Parkin thinks he is poised to bring about another breakthrough that
could increase the amount of data stored on a chip or a hard drive by a
factor of a hundred. If he proves successful in his quest, he will create a
"universal" computer memory, one that can potentially replace dynamic
random access memory, or DRAM, and flash memory chips, and even
make a "disk drive on a chip" possible.
It could begin to replace flash memory in three to five years, scientists
say. Not only would it allow every consumer to carry data equivalent to a
college library on small portable devices, but a tenfold or hundredfold
increase in memory would be disruptive enough to existing storage
technologies that it would undoubtedly unleash the creativity of engineers
who would develop totally new entertainment, communication and
Currently the flash storage chip business is exploding. Used as storage in
digital cameras, cellphones and PCs, the commercially available flash drives
with multiple memory chips store up to 64 gigabytes of data. Capacity is
expected to reach about 50 gigabytes on a single chip in the next
However, flash memory has an Achilles' heel. Although it can read data
quickly, it is very slow at storing it. That has led the industry on a
frantic hunt for alternative storage technologies that might unseat flash.
Mr. Parkin's new approach, referred to as "racetrack memory," could outpace
both solid-state flash memory chips as well as computer hard disks, making
it a technology that could transform not only the storage business but the
entire computing industry.
"Finally, after all these years, we're reaching fundamental physics limits,"
he said. "Racetrack says we're going to break those scaling rules by going
into the third dimension."
His idea is to stand billions of ultrafine wire loops around the edge of a
silicon chip - hence the name racetrack - and use electric current to slide
infinitesimally small magnets up and down along each of the wires to
be read and written as digital ones and zeros.
His research group is able to slide the tiny magnets along notched nanowires
at speeds greater than 100 meters a second. Since the tiny magnetic domains
have to travel only submolecular distances, it is possible to read and write
magnetic regions with different polarization as quickly as a single
nanosecond, or one billionth of a second - far faster than existing storage
If the racetrack idea can be made commercial, he will have done what has so
far proved impossible - to take microelectronics completely into the third
dimension and thus explode the two-dimensional limits of Moore's Law, the
1965 observation by Gordon E. Moore, a co-founder of INTEL , that decrees
that the number of transistors on a silicon chip doubles roughly every 18
Just as with Mr. Parkin's earlier work in GMR, there is no shortage of
skeptics at this point.
Giant storage companies like Seagate Technology are starting to turn toward
flash to create a generation of hybrid storage systems that combine silicon
and rotating disk technologies for speed and capacity. But Seagate is still
looking in the two-dimensional realm for future advances.
"There are a lot of neat technologies, but you have to be able to make
them cost-effectively," said Bill Watkins, Seagate's chief executive.
So far, the racetrack idea is far from the Best Buy shelves and it is very
much still in Mr. Parkin's laboratory here. His track record, however,
suggests that the storage industry might do well to take notice of the
implications of his novel nanowire-based storage system in the not too
"Stuart marches to a little bit of a different drummer, but that's what it
takes to have enough courage to go off the beaten path," said James S.
Harris, an electrical engineering professor at Stanford University and
co-director of the I.B.M.-Stanford Spintronic Science and Applications
A visit to Mr. Parkin's crowded office reveals him to be a 51-year-old
British-American scientist for whom the term hyperactive is a modest
understatement at best. During interviews he is constantly in motion.
When he speaks publicly at scientific gatherings, his longtime technology
assistant, Kevin Roche, is careful to see that Mr. Parkin empties the change
from his pockets, lest he distract his audience with the constant jingling
of coins and keys.
Today, a number of industry analysts think there are important parallels
between Mr. Parkin's earlier GMR research and his new search for racetrack
"We're on the verge of exciting new memory architectures, and his is one of
the leading candidates," said Richard Doherty, director of the
Envisioneering Group, a computing and consumer electronics consulting firm
based in Seaford, N.Y.
Mr. Parkin said he had recently shifted his focus and now thought that his
racetracks might be competitive with other storage technologies even
if they were laid horizontally on a silicon chip.
I.B.M. executives are cautious about the timing of the commercial
introduction of the technology. But ultimately, the technology may have even
more dramatic implications than just smaller music players or wristwatch
TVs, said Mark Dean, vice president for systems at I.B.M. Research.
"Something along these lines will be very disruptive," he said. "It will not
only change the way we look at storage, but it could change the way we
look at processing information. We're moving into a world that is more
data-centric than computing-centric."
This is just a hint, but it suggests that I.B.M. may think that racetrack
memory could blur the line between storage and computing, providing
a key to a new way to search for data, as well as store and retrieve data.
And if it is, Mr. Parkin's experimental physics lab will have transformed
the computing world yet again.
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