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MemCon Question #2: What Comes After DRAM?

Comments(0)Filed under: Industry Insights, Micron, memories, memory, DRAM, NAND, MemCon, Convergence, flash, MRAM, Crocus, PCM

DRAM has been the workhorse of the semiconductor memory market for a long, long time. At the MemCon 2010 conference, I learned that the basic DRAM cell design goes back to 1970 and has changed little since. It may seem somewhat heretical to ask, "What Will Replace DRAM?" but a lively panel at MemCon did just that.

Prior to the panel, as I noted in my previous MemCon 2010 posting, analysts noted that NAND revenues are growing faster than DRAM revenues. This is an overall reflection of where the electronics industry is going, given that NAND flash is popular in mobile applications and DRAM is the traditional memory for PCs and servers. Analysts also noted that current memory technologies are falling short of system performance requirements.

Applications Are Shifting

So do we really need a DRAM replacement? "Absolutely," said Bob Merritt, founding partner at Convergent Semiconductor, who noted that the traditional DRAM cost/performance curve cannot be continued at small lithographies. He noted that target applications are shifting from data processing to multi-media, from desktops to mobile devices, and from limited numbers of similar applications to large numbers of diverse applications with stringent power and performance demands. Memory subsystems need to be concerned about heat, power, and mobility, and they need to be non-volatile, he said.

Just as I was thinking that this focus on applications sounds like EDA360, Merritt suddenly recommended that "everybody download and read" the EDA360 vision paper so as to "look at where the industry is going."

Merritt's solution for DRAM? "We don't need to replace the DRAM cell structure. We need to replace the DRAM business model. The idea of a commodity product that fits into all applications forces suppliers into a cost-per-bit environment."

Barry Hoberman, CMO at Crocus Technology, gave a strong pitch for Magnetoresistive RAM (MRAM) as a technology that will have "full cost competitiveness with DRAM" at the 32 nm process node. Right now, he said, it's an effective replacement for embedded flash and is cost-competitive with embedded SRAM. But it's still a niche technology, he observed.

Reviewing Replacement Options

Ed Doller, chief memory system architect at Micron Technology, said his company has visibility into the next three DRAM process generations - but he said a DRAM replacement is definitely needed by 2015 or so and that work needs to start now. But don't hold your breath for non-volatile DRAM. "The industry is trying to do that, but people are also trying to create cold fusion," he said.

Doller quickly reviewed a number of emerging technologies - FeRAM, MRAM, FBRAM (floating body RAM), T-RAM, and PCM - and concluded (with some dissent from Hoberman) that none offer a combination of scalability, production availability, and drop-in compatibility with DRAM. Phase-change memory (PCM) is perhaps the most promising, but lacks plug-in compatibility, meaning that "we would have to look at the architecture of every computing system known to man and figure out what to do with PCM." (An ongoing debate about PCM is taking place in dueling articles at EE Times).

Mark Greenberg, formerly of Denali and now product marketing manager at Cadence, gave a spirited and entertaining defense of DRAM. He said that the same, simple cell structure (based on 19th century technology) has been in use since 1970, volatility is "not an issue" when there is battery storage, and DRAM is cheap. Thus, he said, "fear of the demise of DRAM is overblown."

A Conclusion

The panel didn't reach a clear consensus on what comes after DRAM. Nor did they conclude that new technology will change the dynamics of the commodity memory industry with its recurring boom/bust cycles. But my sense is that the memory market is being impacted by the same application-driven world that is changing EDA. Memory is no longer a "throw it in later and don't think about it" commodity; it's a vital part of the system architecture from the beginning. And this is why Cadence is now in the memory IP business, and is now the sponsor of MemCon.

Previous Posting

MemCon Question #1: Are Memory Boom-and-Bust Cycles Inevitable?

MemCon 2010 presentations are available on line.

Richard Goering




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