back to article Brit brainiacs say they've cracked non-volatile RAM that uses 100 times less power

A new type of memory that could make computers and smartphones far more energy-efficient, if it ever reaches production, has been developed at the UK's University of Lancaster. Most computers, phones and data centre boxes today rely on a combination of two main types of memories: DRAM and flash. As Reg readers know, DRAM is …

  1. KittenHuffer Silver badge

    Does this mean ....

    .... that there will be enough power left over for me to finally get my flying car?!?

    Edit: Just occurred to me that this means that turning it off and back on again ain’t gonna work anymore!!! 90% of level 1 IT support are suddenly unemployable!

    1. TechnicalBen Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Does this mean ....

      There will be a reset pin point though! :)

      1. paulll Bronze badge

        Re: Does this mean ....

        Until Apple has the spuds to do away with it and the other vendors follow suit, finally making off-the-shelf computers disposable items.

  2. David Bird

    Times makes things larger not smaller

    The times or multiplication operator when used with a number greater than one produces a result which is larger rather than smaller than the original. Or perhaps "times less" is the operator, whatever that means. The article itself uses the correct "1 percent" terminology.

    1. Luke McCarthy

      Re: Times makes things larger not smaller

      times_less(x, n) = x * 1/n

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Times makes things larger not smaller

        Anther definition(incompatible with the 'x*1/n' definition):

        times_less(x,n) = x - x * n

  3. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese Silver badge

    low-cost dumb terminals with minimal local energy consumption

    Quite a good description of a lot of the phone users I see on the bus every day on my commute to work

  4. sorry, what?
    Trollface

    "Within the next decade we'll either have it or we won't"

    No... really?!?

    1. Mr Dogshit

      Re: "Within the next decade we'll either have it or we won't"

      Within the next decade I'll either be dead or I won't.

      1. KittenHuffer Silver badge

        Re: "Within the next decade we'll either have it or we won't"

        You forgot the Zombie option there!

        1. SMFSubtlety
          Coat

          Re: "Within the next decade we'll either have it or we won't"

          Zombie, the Quantum Human state... Alive, Dead, or both

          1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

            Re: "Within the next decade we'll either have it or we won't"

            So... uh, Schrodinger's Dogshit...?

            1. steelpillow Silver badge
              Joke

              Re: "Within the next decade we'll either have it or we won't"

              "So... uh, Schrodinger's Dogshit...?"

              Yecch! I just trod in it.

              No I didn't.

              Or both.

              My office floor stinks and doesn't stink at the same time, I have been fired and not fired, my brain is exploding, no it isn't, that man Schrodinger has a lot to answer for, no he doesn't, Aaugh! I am quite calm about it all...

            2. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: "Within the next decade we'll either have it or we won't"

              Catshit surely

        2. This post has been deleted by its author

        3. redpawn

          Re: "Within the next decade we'll either have it or we won't"

          Therefore, any human being not being observed is a zombie.

    2. Luke McCarthy

      Re: "Within the next decade we'll either have it or we won't"

      It's always a good idea to cover all possible outcomes when making predictions about the future ;-)

      1. BryanFRitt

        Re: "Within the next decade we'll either have it or we won't"

        One other possibility is that we'll kinda have it.

    3. hammarbtyp Silver badge

      Re: "Within the next decade we'll either have it or we won't"

      Reminds me of the famous Nostradamus prediction

      "In the future two armies will fight, one will win"

      (Woody Allen)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: "Within the next decade we'll either have it or we won't"

        Still better than today, where both lose.

    4. Fungus Bob Silver badge

      Re: "Within the next decade we'll either have it or we won't"

      And everything that exists can be classified as either clog dancing or not clog dancing....

  5. Moldskred

    > "Using the new memory in phones and PCs could allow them to be low-cost dumb terminals with minimal local energy consumption,"

    How does that in any way follow? For neither phones nor PCs is memory the most significant power sink, so how is reducing the power consumption of just memory going to be a game changer?

    1. Adair

      But you can already see ...

      phone manufacturers, ISPs, and nameless govt. agencies dribbling with greed at the prospect of being so totally in control of the user's device.

      What brave new world is this, to be so totally pwned?

    2. ThatOne Silver badge
      Devil

      > how is reducing the power consumption of just memory going to be a game changer?

      It won't, of course. It's just an opportunity to advertise the business model where everything you do on your phone (assuming you live in a spot with enough bandwidth) happens on Google/Facebook servers, and you've only got a dumb terminal to feed them your information.

      (The difference with today is that nowadays some things do (or at least can) happen on your phone, and Big Brother only gets notifications of them happening. With a thin client things will happen on Big Brother's servers, and you'll only get a notification of them happening - and the bill.)

    3. LDS Silver badge

      I do expect with such kind of memory local devices being able to keep much more data available locally to be used when needed instead of getting them from slower storage - including remote one. Last time I checked internet speeds were lower than PCIe and SSDs....

    4. paulll Bronze badge

      " "Using the new memory in phones and PCs could allow them to be low-cost dumb terminals with minimal local energy consumption,"

      How does that in any way follow?"

      It seems to me that,"It'll all be fat-server-thin-client any day now," was the archetype for,"This will be the year of Linux on the desktop."

      The distinction being that when you ask,"Why is that a good thing?" the latter crowd will throw more reasons at you than you would ever want to hear, whereas the former will, at best, respaff a bunch of meaningless marketing-speak.

      10/100 Ethernet was going to get us there. 32-bit processors were going to get us there. Java was going to get us there. 64-bit processors were going to get us there. Optical mice were going to do it (I'm sure somebody said it).

      Not saying it hasn't got some traction with the whole,"cloud," thing, just saying it's mostly bollocks.

    5. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      "How does that in any way follow?"

      I wondered about that but then the account ent off into data-centre power consumption. I think what they were getting at would be that it would enable data centres to be bigger and (for some value) better, enabling the thin client thing. The trouble is that, as others have posted, "better" is for the likes of Google & FaceBook. So no thanks, the better option would be more capability in the device and less need to go online which latter, in any case, seems likely to be a bigger drain on power than DRAM.

      1. paulll Bronze badge

        " (for some value) better"

        "It's the er, green, um, efficiency... scalable, uhhh paradigm! ... thing. Yup :):)"

    6. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Nor would Magic Unicorn Storage do anything to make a dumb-terminal alternative to the smartphone useful when you can't get a connection.

  6. John Sager

    Hmm. 'Simulations'. Let's see some wafers first and measurements thereon.

    There are far too many "Look! We've just made this amazing breakthrough in speed, power consumption, energy density, carbon reduction, etc." articles which never get anywhere. Perhaps you should produce a working model & characterise it before publishing?

    1. hmv Silver badge

      Of course it may be necessary to publish to get the funding for a working model!

  7. Electronics'R'Us Silver badge
    Headmaster

    DRAM

    DRAM is fast but volatile, meaning it loses information when its power source is cut

    <pedant>

    Well, that is true, but it also loses information in < 1/10 second if not refreshed (i.e. recharge the memory cells because they are a transistor used as a very small capacitor). The typical amount of time for a complete refresh (all memory cells get a recharge) is 64 milliseconds for current devices from DDR1 to the latest versions.

    This is an overhead in all DRAM implementations (although it is transparent to userland but not to those writing the initialisation code which is quite interesting if you are using ICs and not SODIMMs).

    The implementation of refresh circuitry is now well understood, but it still requires a lot of extra circuitry within the memory controller as well as the memory device and some power to operate as does the transaction based burst nature of all DRAMs (which makes them unsuitable for many applications).

    SRAM (static RAM) also loses it's information if power is cut but does not need refresh; the penalty is more power required but they are very popular in some applications including some server applications.

    Both the above are volatile types of memory.

    NVRAM that runs at the same speed as standard SDRAM (DDR3/4 and so on) is available but they are a bit expensive but there are advantages such as very fast boot times as the OS (if used) does not need to be loaded from one memory (typically flash) to main DRAM.

    </pedant>

    1. Bronek Kozicki Silver badge
      Paris Hilton

      Re: DRAM

      NVRAM that runs at the same speed as standard SDRAM

      Do you mean the few commercial uses of ReRAM, or similar technology; or just battery-powered DRAM banks? Just curious.

      1. Electronics'R'Us Silver badge
        Go

        Re: DRAM

        There are a few things out there, although not at the highest of speeds of current DDR4; for many applications, though, that speed is not really necessary (especially in the embedded space).

        Everspin has a couple of devices with reasonable capacities but they are quite expensive compared to standard products; the advantage is that they survive power dropouts (very common in many applications such as avionics) and the application can reside within the devices.

        They are also touting the parts for data centres.

  8. alain williams Silver badge

    RAM clear on power off ?

    Does this mean that operating systems running with this ULTRARAM will need to wipe memory before it powers down ? If not then crooks/Gov't-spys could move the RAM chips into a reader and get passwords, keys, etc.

    There was a story a couple of years back about being able to read RAM after a reboot, but this needed to be done in a few seconds. With this it could be done at leisure.

    1. RichardBarrell

      Re: RAM clear on power off ?

      The story was that researchers worked out a trick for this where you spray the RAM chips with an aerosol to cool them down. The contents decay slower when they're colder, so the time to steal the data can be extended to minutes. :)

    2. Luke McCarthy

      Re: RAM clear on power off ?

      The problem could be avoided by encrypting RAM (which AMD EPYC CPUs can do already).

      1. eldakka Silver badge

        Re: RAM clear on power off ?

        Where's the RAM encryption key held? Can't that be read from some location in the chipset with an electron microscope of sufficient sensitivity?

        Although, I guess, for RAM, the key could be randomly generated on each boot, and only 'stored' for the duration of the current power-cycle, because it's not like you need to maintain the key across reboots with non-volatile RAM therefore a key doesn't need to be stored in NVRAM. As long as there is a mechanism in place to zap the key on a shutdown then I guess it wouldn't matter. (although, personally, I've always thought DRAM modules should have an in-built chip-level hardware zero-out capability, so on shutdown the entire stick can zero itself out rather than relying on natural discharge rates.)

        1. phuzz Silver badge

          Re: RAM clear on power off ?

          This is basically how the 'secure erase' function works on modern SSDs. The drive is encrypted on the fly from factory, and running secure erase just changes the security key.

        2. Jamie Jones Silver badge

          Re: RAM clear on power off ?

          Not RAM, but that's how encrypted swap works on FreeBSD - A new key is generated randomly on startup, and is only held in RAM. As soon as you power down, the key is lost.

      2. QuBitMac

        Re: RAM clear on power off ?

        Encrypting RAM would slow it down by about 20% though..

    3. katrinab Silver badge

      Re: RAM clear on power off ?

      No, because that would defeat the whole purpose of having it, which is that you can switch the computer on and be up and running immediately, and you would run programs directly from storage rather than having to load them into a faster type of memory first.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
        Joke

        Re: RAM clear on power off ?

        So, a bit like a BBC micro with, eg the WordWise sideways ROM installed?

      2. NorthIowan

        Re: RAM clear on power off ?

        Maybe restart could be changed to be clear RAM and reload OS. Although the clear part may only be needed for security.

        But there would probably also need to be some sort of method in the BIOS and motherboard to do a forced clear of RAM and reload OS for those times when the OS goes TITSUP. The present holding the power button down would probably work with a few BIOS tweaks.

    4. Snake Silver badge

      Re: RAM clear on power off ?

      The apparent answer is a combination of both: encrypt the user storage memory but allow programs to operate in a sandbox. You can't get access to the user data until you decrypt, and you can quickly collapse both the user data and program memory heap by simply terminating the sandbox all at once if necessary. The base OS kernel can, with VERY careful writing, be left latent in memory for quick restore.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "It's a bit like having your cake and eating it too,"

    Is that a way of hiding a statement in plain sight that this technology is actually impossible to implement?

    1. TechnicalBen Silver badge
      Trollface

      Well, the real solution is baking 2 cakes then. But you'd have to think of a buzzword to sell it. REALLY sell it as the new thing since sliced bread.

      Weight Watchers marketed the opposite. Giving you half as much cake, for twice the price.

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      I think it's to smooth the way for the next grant by appealing to BoJo. He likes having his cake and eating it.

  10. adam 40 Bronze badge

    Manus Hayne

    Did he also invent the Hayne Manusal?

    I'll get me hat....

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Manus Hayne

      Protop: putting your hat on is the reverse of removal.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    As seen in Blocks & Files.

    Linked from the front page of the Register.

    https://blocksandfiles.com/2020/01/23/universal-memory-candidate-technology/

  12. Richard Tobin

    I'm still waiting...

    ... for bubble memory.

    1. Korev Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: I'm still waiting...

      Maybe someone could bubble sort that out for you

    2. NorthIowan

      Re: I'm still waiting...

      I saw it being manufacture at TI when I interviewed there. A veeerrrry long time ago.

      I think the researchers worked in the same room as manufacturing. It wasn't that big of a room.

    3. Mage Silver badge

      Re: I'm still waiting...

      Bubble memory was used in some applications. It was slow and expensive.

      1. werdsmith Silver badge

        Re: I'm still waiting...

        I was shown bubble memory at Plessey, but by then it was already obsolete.

        It was all about static ram vs dynamic. I remember my little 6116 2kx8. I thought it some kind of magic.

    4. Mike 16 Silver badge

      Re: I'm still waiting...

      You will find it filed under "Racetrack: memory (IBM?). It's all the rage, like MRAM which is, IIRC, Thin Film magnetic memory (as used in the early 70s), but "on a chip", or FRAM, again IIRC, Ferroeletric RAM (demonstrated at Bell Labs in the Mid 1960s) "on a chip". This whole "on a chip" thing is like patenting some 500 year old concept, but "on a computer".

      Maybe I should look at SAW devices with integrated electronics to implement the EDSAC acoustic delay line memory "on a chip"

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I'm still waiting...

      "... for bubble memory."

      I had an unusual PC decades ago (possibly Sharp) which had media that what looked like 3.5" floppy cases - but were bubble memory.

  13. Dazed and Confused Silver badge

    Welcome to the Machine

    Queue the Pink Floyd:

    ULTRARAM could change how computers work from head to toe, according to Hayne.

    Sounds like memristor all over again. See https://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/05/01/hp_labs_unveils_memsistor/ which a dozen years later we're all still waiting for. Which HP said would lead to a totally new approach to building systems. This led to "The Machine" (see https://www.theregister.co.uk/2016/11/24/hpes_machinations_to_rewrite_server_design_laws/) and the inevitable Pink Floyd reference. Given their promotional video and it's discussed usage case they seemed not to have listened to the rest of song, which seemed to have guessed what the new technology would be used for 30years earlier.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
      Headmaster

      Re: Welcome to the Machine

      "Cue the Pink Floyd:"

      FTFY

      1. eldakka Silver badge

        Re: Welcome to the Machine

        Maybe @Dazed and Confused did mean "Queue the Pink Floyd" in the same way this memory technology is being queued. That is, stick it in the queue of existing proposed but unrealised memory technologies, where one day it may come out of that queue, but probably won't.

  14. Pascal Monett Silver badge
    Facepalm

    "process everything remotely to maximise efficiency"

    Why is it that every new tech is automatically used as another excuse for flinging my data about to points I do not control and want nothing to do with ?

    How is it that a slightly better memory tech means my local phone will suddenly stop processing anything ?

    Stop it. So you might have a better version of RAM, fine. It's still RAM, and it will not change a thing as far as data processing is concerned. It will most certainly not create a world where everything millions of users do on their phones will be sent to a central computer (can we say mainframe again ?) for processing and the result sent back.

    I'm sure IBM would like that, but no, not gonna happen.

    1. ThatOne Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: "process everything remotely to maximise efficiency"

      > Why is it that every new tech is automatically used as another excuse for flinging my data about to points I do not control and want nothing to do with ?

      Well, to be honest it's an old trend I've already observed in personal computing, long before smart phones. Apparently everyone dreams to go back to the ancient "big iron - dumb terminal" configuration. Nostalgia? Greed? Hunger for ultimate power over the "lusers"? Never managed to know. I realize it allows some interesting things though:

      - Blackmail them at will ("Nice set of data you have there, it would be a pity if you lost access to it because you didn't accept our latest 250% fee increase.")

      - Sell them additional services, like remedies against the bugs and shortcomings of your platform ("Premium Priority Pass - For when you really need your device to reliably work at least once every week").

      - Delete their files and watch them squirm, the ugly, nasty worms.

      - Sell their data to anybody who might give you any money for it. Over and over again.

      And so on. So yes, there are reasons for it, just no good reasons.

    2. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

      Re: "process everything remotely to maximise efficiency"

      I saw this and wondered immediately how switching from moving data around circuits in one place to chucking it across vast distances, which incurs lag even with speed-of-light transmission, could possibly make something more efficient. Perhaps they mean efficiency in terms of energy usage, rather than in terms of time taken to process something, but still one wonders about the energy costs of moving information about.

      There's an entropic limit here in terms of how much change you have to make in the communications systems involved, and there is a physical minimum energy cost associated with the change in entropy (in chemical systems this is known as enthalpy). There might be efficiency gains from economies of scale, but I bet you they're not going to be measurable ones in the bigger scheme of things.

    3. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge

      Re: "process everything remotely to maximise efficiency"

      Funded by 5G investors? Nevermind the all power needed to get mmWave to pass through anything more dense than a vacuum.

      The whole point of desktop computers was escaping the constraints of centralized computing. History says that local computing was a very good idea.

  15. batfink Silver badge

    Power consumption meh

    By the time this comes out, we won't be worrying about power consumption. Given the timeframe, we should all have our working fusion reactors around then anyway.

  16. Stuart Halliday

    Come back when there's a chip module wafer...

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      ...in mass production...

      ...at capacities of 512Gb per chip...

  17. Old Used Programmer

    How long....

    Nothing in the article about effective working lifetime. Does this share the problem with flash that it can only be written a limited (sometimes *very* limited) number of times?

  18. Oh Homer
    Alien

    Non-volatile ram

    I had a non-volatile ram once. I called him Yoda, mostly due to his voice. Instead of butting me out of his way, he'd just stand there patiently staring me down, like he was trying to move me with The Force. I suspect he may have been the result of a bizarre military experiment.

    1. Richard 12 Silver badge
      Mushroom

      Re: Non-volatile ram

      Don't stare at the goats.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    RAMming speed

    The big problem with Flash isn't so much that the cells wear out but this process is random and essentially unpredictable. So a cell which should be rewritable another 10,000 times might break down on the next write.

    Unclear if this will solve the problem but resonant tunneling is interesting.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: RAMming speed

      >>>The big problem with Flash isn't so much that the cells wear out but it doesn't exist below 28nm

      FTFY

  20. Man inna barrel

    What about background radiation?

    If the memory cell states can be changed using far less power than now, isn't there a risk that memory will get corrupted more easily by the effects of background radiation? This has to be accounted for in space electronics, due to cosmic rays. That is seriously heavy stuff, which is not normally a problem at normal altitudes, where the earth's atmosphere provides shielding. But there is always a bit of weaker radiation about, that could cause trouble for this technology. Perhaps you cannot use this technology in Cornwall. I would not fancy it anywhere near a cancer treatment machine, either.

    1. ThatOne Silver badge
      Happy

      Re: What about background radiation?

      Well, you'll have to take into account that every time there is a thunderstorm outside, your device wipes itself. Same will happen if you wear wool or synthetic fibers on dry winter days. Or brush your hair, or sit on a chair with synthetic upholstery. Never come close to any transformer, high tension line, talkie-walkie, old electrical device (from power drill to elevator). Minor annoyances, all.

  21. Mike 16 Silver badge

    Power efficiency from "thin clients"

    Well, the main advantage is that data centers don't have their power sources sealed such that after 3 years of use you just have to build an entire data center. For maximally rosy statements about power efficiency, please to ignore the embedded energy of building a Facebook or Google scale data center.

    Yes, I believe the real meaning is "maximally efficient at transferring power over data from users to corporations". See Also: Chrome, iCloud, Office365...

  22. luis river

    Me favorite game

    The saga of NVM or failed SCM is already so long that I bet a week without drinking alcohol if this time is the good one. !!!

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