Move over flash: Here comes phase-change memory

Researchers plan to demonstrate a SSD that uses phase-change memory next week

University of California, San Diego researchers next week plan to demonstrate a solid state storage device that uses phase-change memory to blow away traditional hard drives and even newer flash drives.

The Moneta system, which will be shown at the Design Automation Conference (DAC 2011) in San Diego, is thousands of times faster than a convention hard drive and up to seven times faster than flash memory drives according to the student-faculty research team.

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The phase-change memory used in the device stores data in the glass-like structure of a metal alloy called chalcogenide that changes states as atoms are rearranged. Like flash memory used in everything from laptops to iPads, PCM involves no moving parts, according to the university.

Moneta uses first-generation PCM chips from Micron Technology and can read big chunks of data at up to 1.1GB per second in an energy efficient way.

"As a society, we can gather all this data very, very quickly – much faster than we can analyze it with conventional, disk-based storage systems," said Steven Swanson, professor of Computer Science and Engineering and director of the Non-Volatile Systems Lab (NVSL), in a statement.  "Phase-change memory-based solid state storage devices will allow us to sift through all of this data, make sense of it, and extract useful information much faster. It has the potential to be revolutionary."

Swanson says he hopes to build a second generation Moneta device in the next six to nine months, and foresees commercial products within a few years. Work needs to be done on the software front to cope with the new hardware, he says.

PCM has been under investigation for years by chip and storage companies such as IBM, Intel, Infineon and Micron. Samsung last year announced it was putting PCM for smartphones in a chip package.

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