Wednesday November 21, 2018

Alternative Memory Like MRAM Was a Focus at VLSI 2018

Spinning platters aside, there are three major types of writable memory used inside modern computers: SRAM, DRAM, and NAND. A considerable amount of money has been spent optimizing all three over the years, which means most companies are hesitant to invest in new memory technologies. However, Intel's debut of 3D XPoint and the increasing divergence from Moore's Law is renewing interest in new memory technology. David Kanter noticed that significantly more emphasis was placed on alternative memory at VLSI this year, and highlighted 2 papers in particular. TDK is working on shrinking MRAM cells and reducing their power usage with new materials, while TSMC is working on clever sensing circuits that should enable better MRAM read access. While these advances in MRAM technology are noteworthy, the bigger implication seems to be that major manufacturers are dumping significantly more R&D money into alternative memory technologies.

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Neither paper describes a technology that is ready for high-volume manufacturing. But both teams highlight the low-hanging research opportunities that are available for an emerging memory such as MRAM. The two papers also illustrate the great commercial interest in developing MRAM. As Moore’s Law slows, semiconductor manufacturers must turn to new techniques to boost performance, and new memories, such as MRAM, could fill that void. Each emerging memory will require considerable research to pick the low-hanging fruit and find a commercially viable niche that will support high-volume manufacturing.