Samsung, Numonyx to develop PCM specifications

Samsung and Numonyx will jointly develop hardware and power management features for phase-change memory

Samsung Electronics and Numonyx on Tuesday said the companies would jointly develop specifications for phase-change memory, an upcoming memory technology for PCs and mobile devices.

The joint effort between Samsung and Numonyx could help drive the evolution of PCM technology, which is still viewed as an experimental memory type, analysts said. Samsung and other companies, such as IBM and Intel, have been involved in PCM's development for many years, researching ways to improve its storage capacity and speed.

While companies such as Samsung have taken a cautious approach to PCM, Numonyx, a flash-memory joint venture between STMicroelectronics and Intel, has hedged its bets on the future of the technology. The company is already commercially shipping PCM chips code-named "Alverstone" in small numbers to select device makers.

The Samsung-Numonyx effort is an attempt to expedite the commercial adoption of PCM, said Gregory Wong, principal analyst at Forward Insights. It's a sign that Samsung wants to take the memory out of experimentation and bring it to market, he said. Samsung, one of the world's largest memory-chip manufacturers, is giving PCM serious consideration, which could help to drive its commercial adoption.

Proponents have said that PCM will eventually replace NOR and NAND flash memory in devices such as smartphones, because it reads data at faster speeds while using less power. However, Wong said that right now, PCM is slower in write times and consumes more power than existing memory types, and there is room for improvement. Samsung and Numonyx could be trying to address those issues, he said.

PCM uses a glass-like material that can change from multiple states to crystalline forms as its atoms are rearranged. The state of the material corresponds to the 1s and 0s in computing, allowing it to be used to store data.

The companies will try to optimize the memory for mobile devices by jointly developing hardware and power management specifications. The joint effort will simplify chip designs and shorten development time for the memory, while enabling manufacturers to quickly adopt PCM for products. Specifications will be completed this year, with compliant devices becoming available next year, the companies said in a joint statement.

But PCM, like any new memory technology, needs to be scaled from the lab to high-volume manufacturing, which will be a challenge, said Joseph Unsworth, research director at analyst firm Gartner. It will probably be at least three years before PCM makes a meaningful impact on the memory markets, he said.

"Cell phones are the key application here, but it will take time before any of the major OEMs move to a foreign memory technology," Unsworth said.

In the short term, PCM may not be able to compete with the low price of NAND flash, which offers higher storage capacity as well, Unsworth said. The storage density of PCM on a single chip is well under 1GB at this point, while NAND flash is moving to 4GB on a single chip. However, PCM could first replace NOR, which is relatively more expensive compared to NAND flash.

In the short term, PCM will coexist with other memory types. The new memory type won't replace Samsung's current stable of existing memory chips for mobile devices, the company said.

"We anticipate that PCM will eventually be a major addition to our family of memory products, one that will nicely complement our other mobile memory solutions," said SeiJin Kim, vice president, mobile memory technology planning and enabling at Samsung Electronics.

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Agam Shah

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