Graphene Flash Memory

Model of graphene structure by CORE-Materials (cc) (from Flickr)
Model of graphene structure by CORE-Materials (cc) (from Flickr)

I have been thinking about writing a post on “Is Flash Dead?” for a while now.  Well at least since talking with IBM research a couple of weeks ago on their new memory technologies that they have been working on.

But then this new Technology Review article came out  discussing recent research on Graphene Flash Memory.

Problems with NAND Flash

As we have discussed before, NAND flash memory has some serious limitations as it’s shrunk below 11nm or so. For instance, write endurance plummets, memory retention times are reduced and cell-to-cell interactions increase significantly.

These issues are not that much of a problem with today’s flash at 20nm or so. But to continue to follow Moore’s law and drop the price of NAND flash on a $/Gb basis, it will need to shrink below 16nm.  At that point or soon thereafter, current NAND flash technology will no longer be viable.

Other non-NAND based non-volatile memories

That’s why IBM and others are working on different types of non-volatile storage such as PCM (phase change memory), MRAM (magnetic RAM) , FeRAM (Ferroelectric RAM) and others.  All these have the potential to improve general reliability characteristics beyond where NAND Flash is today and where it will be tomorrow as chip geometries shrink even more.

IBM seems to be betting on MRAM or racetrack memory technology because it has near DRAM performance, extremely low power and can store far more data in the same amount of space. It sort of reminds me of delay line memory where bits were stored on a wire line and read out as they passed across a read/write circuit. Only in the case of racetrack memory, the delay line is etched in a silicon circuit indentation with the read/write head implemented at the bottom of the cleft.

Graphene as the solution

Then along comes Graphene based Flash Memory.  Graphene can apparently be used as a substitute for the storage layer in a flash memory cell.  According to the report, the graphene stores data using less power and with better stability over time.  Both crucial problems with NAND flash memory as it’s shrunk below today’s geometries.  The research is being done at UCLA and is supported by Samsung, a significant manufacturer of NAND flash memory today.

Current demonstration chips are much larger than would be useful.  However, given graphene’s material characteristics, the researchers believe there should be no problem scaling it down below where NAND Flash would start exhibiting problems.  The next iteration of research will be to see if their scaling assumptions can hold when device geometry is shrunk.

The other problem is getting graphene, a new material, into current chip production.  Current materials used in chip manufacturing lines are very tightly controlled and  building hybrid graphene devices to the same level of manufacturing tolerances and control will take some effort.

So don’t look for Graphene Flash Memory to show up anytime soon. But given that 16nm chip geometries are only a couple of years out and 11nm, a couple of years beyond that, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Graphene based Flash Memory introduced in about 4 years or so.  Then again, I am no materials expert, so don’t hold me to this timeline.




Toshiba studies laptop write rates confirming SSD longevity

Toshiba's New 2.5" SSD from
Toshiba's New 2.5in SSD from

Today Toshiba announced a new series of SSD drives based on their 32NM MLC NAND technology. The new technology is interesting but what caught my eye was another part of their website, i.e., their SSD FAQs. We have talked about MLC NAND technology before and have discussed its inherent reliability limitations, but this is the first time I have seen some company discuss their reliability estimates so publicly. This was documented more in an IDC white paperon their site but the summary on the FAQ web page speaks to most of it.

Toshiba’s answer to the MLC write endurance question all revolves around how much data a laptop user writes per day which their study makes clear . Essentially, Toshiba assumes MLC NAND write endurance is 1,400 write/erase cycles and for their 64GB drive a user would have to write, on average, 22GB/day for 5 years before they would exceed the manufacturers warranty based on write endurance cycles alone.

Let’s see:

  • 5 years is ~1825 days
  • 22GB/day over 5 years would be over 40,000GB of data written
  • If we divide this by the 1400 MLC W/E cycle limits given above, that gives us something like 28.7 NAND pages could fail and yet still support write reliability.

Not sure what Toshiba’s MLC SSD supports for page size but it’s not unusual for SSDs to ship an additional 20% of capacity to over provision for write endurance and ECC. Given that 20% of 64GB is ~12.8GB, and it has to at least sustain ~28.7 NAND page failures, this puts Toshiba’s MLC NAND page at something like 512MB or ~4Gb which makes sense.

MLC vs, SLC write endurance from
MLC vs, SLC write endurance from

The not so surprising thing about this analysis is that as drive capacity goes up, write endurance concerns diminish because the amount of data that needs to be written daily goes up linearly with the capacity of the SSD. Toshiba’s latest drive announcements offer 64/128/256GB MLC SSDs for the mobile market.

Toshiba studies mobile users write activity

To come at their SSD reliability estimate from another direction, Toshiba’s laptop usage modeling study of over 237 mobile users showed the “typical” laptop user wrote an average of 2.4GB/day (with auto-save&hibernate on) and a “heavy” labtop user wrote 9.2GB/day under similar specifications. Now averages are well and good but to really put this into perspective one needs to know the workload variability. Nonetheless, their published results do put a rational upper bound on how much data typical laptop users write during a year that can then be used to compute (MLC) SSD drive reliability.

I must applaud Toshiba for publishing some of their mobile user study information to help us all better understand SSD reliability for this environment. It would have been better to see the complete study including all the statistics, when it was done, how users were selected, and it would have been really nice to see this study done by a standard’s body (say SNIA) rather than a manufacturer, but these are all personal nits.

Now, I can’t wait to see a study on write activity for the “heavy” enterprise data center environment, …