5G Network Infrastructure to Drive Memory Diversity

Article By : Gary Hilson

Networking infrastructure will require new and established technologies, as smartphones advance. 5G memory demand is likely to be similar to 4G memory demand...

For consumers, 5G brings with it the potential of a better user experience on smartphones, but its influence on memory uptake won’t be at the device level.

Handset makers will continue to add more DRAM and flash storage to smartphones regardless of network connections. The memory in 5G network infrastructure will be even more diverse given the many use cases for the next generation of mobile networking.

In some cases, existing memories will be sufficient, but there will also be applications that require more powerful memory to meet computing requirements. Environmental and power considerations also come into play, which could mean an opportunity for low-density memories or established technologies that are qualified.

“DRAM and NAND company executives like to say how the market’s future will be driven by the next-generation cell phone,” said Jim Handy, principal of Objective Analysis. “This time it happens to be 5G.” What tends to happen instead, according to Handy, is the amount of smartphone memory grows steadily despite the transition from one technology to the next.

The rationale for moving to next-generation wireless technology is that it gives faster access to web-based content, said Handy. “This naturally implies that there will be less need for storage on the handset, yet the amount of NAND always increases. It’s hard to reconcile these two.”

Jim Handy

More DRAM also leads to more power consumption, he added, shortening battery life.

But 5G will do more than feed video more quickly to smartphones; backbone memory requirements are also about reliability and ruggedness. In some cases, memory requirements for 5G network infrastructure have more in common with automotive and industrial segments than smartphones. The reason is those memory devices need to last quite a while in telecom equipment.

Scott Phillips, vice president of marketing at embedded memory vendor Virtium, said very few smartphones currently support 5G. As carriers roll out 5G networks, “It’s creating demand for product lines for which [most] didn’t foresee huge growth. It’s quite diverse.”

Indeed, 5G will be implemented as a mix of old and new technologies along the backbone all the way back to the data center, Phillips predicted. Mobile backhaul is placing demands on memory, but it’s not necessarily the latest DRAM. “Where there’s a bridging of the gap between a 4G or an LTE phone and a 5G back haul is where they’re still using some DDR3 or DDR4,” he said.

But it’s not just in connecting smartphones where 5G creates opportunities for different kinds of memory and storage. Autonomous vehicles and factory automation deployments employing AI and machine learning all require a lot of data, said Phillips. “5G can move that data very quickly, but you still need a big memory cache.”

That opens opportunities for fast DRAM to move large data sets into networks, including edge devices handling analytics before shipping data to the cloud. “Instead of looking for the needle in the haystack, they’re trying to get rid of the haystack,” said Phillips.

Just as industrial customers are leveraging edge computing, carrier base stations at the edge must be industrial-strength memory, according to the Virtium executive. Depending on where edge data centers are located, they have to be rugged since datacenter cooling and air filtering are impractical.

That requirement has spawned more industrial-grade form factors for memory and storage via rugged SSDs. Virtium recently announced a collaboration with SolidRun to incorporate its StorFly M.2 SATA industrial-grade SSDs, DDR4 memory modules and StorKit SSD software in edge computing platforms that run on 5G.

Non-volatile memory vendor Macronix reports healthy growth thanks to investments in 5G infrastructure longevity and reliability, said Anthony Le, the company’s marketing chief. Big telecom operators are using a combination of large and small cells, with processors and Ethernet controllers driving the density requirements for NOR flash memory.

“Those systems are up for 10-plus years. They don’t ever come down, and reliability and longevity are ultra-important in those cases,” said Le. Boot devices store special keys to boost network security. “As these systems come up, security becomes a really big issue,” Le stressed.

Like Virtium, Macronix views 5G as more than just connecting smartphones. Billions of IoT edge devices are likely in industrial and automotive deployments, said Le,

“Without 5G, you can’t do true autonomous level three, or four, let alone five. You need a much faster network infrastructure.” Bandwidth and memory requirements will soar as 5G capacity expands.

Between efforts by Apple and Samsung, the architecture for memory and connectivity coalesced quickly for smartphones, noted Frank Ferro, senior director of product marketing at Rambus. The company has been working on 5G infrastructure since 2017. “We have a pretty good window into what kind of memory architectures they’re looking at for some of these 5G infrastructures.”

For the foreseeable future, 5G will be a smorgasbord of memory options, Ferro predicted, ranging from legacy to advanced technologies depending on the application. “As you’re building out 5G, you have a whole change in the way that networks are being used,” the Rambus executive said. While 4G was monolithic, 5G includes both logical and virtual networks running more applications directly on edge clouds in data centers.

The shift to 5G is looking like general network infrastructure with more than just DDR DRAM; there’s a role for higher performance graphics DDR DRAM and High Bandwidth Memory (HBM), essentially reconfigured and stacked DRAM. “You can get a heck of a lot of processing now with the HBM in this much smaller footprint” Ferro said. But there’s still a spectrum of newer and older, dependable memory across 5G infrastructure, he added, with standard DDR DRAM doing a lot of “housekeeping” functions and HBM handling much higher throughput for AI applications.

Overall, there’s going to be new memory supplementing old to meet 5G requirements, said Ferro, while also sticking with what works. In some cases, faster memories will be inevitable. That means manufacturing issues must be resolved.

Competitors are “going to have to figure out a new memory architecture,” Ferro concluded.  “We’re still kind of loading up our boards with memory now.”

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