ARM's shift to non-volatile memory bodes well
ARM sets its sights on non-volatile memory technology, involving both magnetic RAM and correlated electron RAM (CeRAM), taking an active hand in driving research that could move the electronics industry forward.
While a prominent supplier of intellectual property for processors, ARM is also famous for not designing and manufacturing its own chips. It licenses processor cores to fabless and IDM chip companies in return for initial fees and royalties, leaving to other companies the responsibility of developing a manufacturing process, researching a better transistor, and developing a better memory.
But as ARM achieved greater global success, the level of circuit integration also increased. Back in 1990, low-power logic through elegant minimal design was ARM's key benefit but significant amounts of memory were always an off-chip consideration. The sizes of on–chip cache have subsequently grown and in contemporary application, processors and SoCs' multiple processor cores must access multiple on-chip memory spaces. Burning power in those memories is starting to become highly detrimental to efficient performance. Similarly, moving memory contents on- and off-chip is power hungry. This all points to on-chip non-volatile memory available in a logic manufacturing process, or logic in a non-volatile process, as something very much to be desired.
Fundamental device capability has always linked to manufacturing process and design but in the past the biggest differentiator was design. Now, just as almost everyone is getting out of manufacturing and process development (see IBM), the balance could be tipping back towards knowing the ins and outs of quantum mechanically influenced transistor and memory structures and being able to manufacture them.
I don't expect ARM to change its policy towards manufacturing but the company has clearly grown up and now feels it is part of its responsibility to help develop all the essential capabilities, both in its own best interest and in the interest of its electronics ecosystem.
The first and nearest term announcement was that ARM has licensed in MRAM from start-up France-based Crocus Technology to aid the development of security and microcontroller chips. Crocus is providing ARM with access to its Magnetic Logic Unit technology including sub-90nm MRAM blocks that can replace traditional Flash based non-volatile memory, and match-in-place technology that Crocus claims enhances the security of keys and other secret data.
Vincent Korstanje, vice president of marketing, systems and software at ARM, said at the time: "The potential impact of emerging non-volatile memory technologies is substantial. ARM is keen to investigate and understand how this may ultimately affect our broad ecosystem of silicon partners, OEMs and other stakeholders."
Further from market but also of potentially great significance is the news that ARM is evaluating the CeRAM technology being developed by Carlos Paz de Araujo and colleagues at the University of Colorado and Symetrix Corp.
The claim is that the CeRAM is a non-filamentary, non-electroforming resistive RAM that allows robust high-temperature storage showing 400°C prolonged storage without degradation, read voltages at 0.1V to 0.2V, and endurance cycling above 1012 cycles. Early indications are that CeRAM could fit with CMOS process flows and monolithic 3D stacking. The non-filamentary claim is the key as it suggests the memory could scale below 10nm dimensions.
According to Symetrix, ARM is evaluating the technology as part of its strategy in the embedded non-volatile memory offerings and it has agreed to provide results to foundries engaged by ARM. Professor Araujo has told me that ARM will use device models for array design and cell development. He added that CeRAM could be in commercial production in embedded applications within two years, such as non-volatile memory for a microcontroller on a modest node such as 130nm.
Displacing flash in stand-alone stacked memory would probably take longer, but it is good that ARM is taking a lead in researching these things.
It is well known that getting the direction of technology or market development is relatively easy. It is getting the timing right that makes the difference between success and failure. In my questioning of ARM executives over recent years I have been repeatedly asking about non-volatile memory. It now feels ARM is playing all the right notes and probably in the right order –and with a little accelerando.
- Peter Clarke
EE Times Europe
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