IBM's new memory tech could turbocharge your smartphone

Phase-change memory is way faster and more durable than flash

Smartphones

IBM has made a breakthrough in researching memory technology when it comes to developing 'universal memory' that falls somewhere between DRAM and flash, and could revolutionise storage across the board.

The breakthrough involves phase-change memory (PCM) which IBM has successfully achieved storing three bits of data per cell for the first time, compared to previous demonstrations of storing one bit per cell. This ups the ante considerably in terms of cost-effectiveness.

PCM is much more durable than flash – it can last something like 10 million write cycles compared to the average flash USB stick which endures around 3,000 write cycles – and it's way faster, coming closer to DRAM performance, but with one big difference: it doesn't lose data when switched off like DRAM.

Significant cost reduction

Dr Haris Pozidis, manager of non-volatile memory research at IBM Research, commented: "Phase change memory is the first instantiation of a universal memory with properties of both DRAM and flash, thus answering one of the grand challenges of our industry. Reaching 3 bits per cell is a significant milestone because at this density the cost of PCM will be significantly less than DRAM and closer to flash."

That cost reduction is vital in terms of actually realising this, so you can see why folks are getting excited. The new memory tech could have implications across a range of uses, including providing blazingly quick storage for cloud and IoT applications, and boosting performance of the likes of machine learning.

Businesses could see entire databases stored in PCM enabling ultra-fast querying, and of course this will also make a major difference to smartphones.

IBM envisions hybrid applications with PCM running alongside traditional flash storage in a phone, but with the OS stored in the PCM so when you switch your phone on, it loads almost immediately and you're staring at your home screen before you've had time to bat an eyelid.

It all sounds good to us.

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