A New Form of Data Storage

Stephen DeAngelis

February 7, 2008

Occasionally I see an article that interests me and I save it to read later. One such article discusses a new form of data storage under development at IBM [“Redefining the Architecture of Memory,” by John Markoff, New York Times, 11 September 2007]. Data storage is one of the amazing stories of the information age (and sometimes one of its greatest challenges as well). Markoff writes:

“The ability to cram more data into less space on a memory chip or a hard drive has been the crucial force propelling consumer electronics companies to make ever smaller devices. It shrank the mainframe computer to fit on the desktop, shrank it again to fit on our laps and again to fit into our shirt pockets. Now, if an idea that Stuart S. P. Parkin is kicking around in an I.B.M. lab here is on the money, electronic devices could hold 10 to 100 times the data in the same amount of space. That means the iPod that today can hold up to 200 hours of video could store every single TV program broadcast during a week on 120 channels.”

That’s pretty remarkable when you think about it. The fact that the estimate of how much Parkin’s method might improve storage over current methods is so indefinite (10 to 100 times) is a pretty good clue that it’s not quite ready to go to market. Markoff reports that people are hoping for great things, however, because Stuart Parkin has pulled off amazing discoveries before.

“The tech world, obsessed with data density, is taking notice because Mr. Parkin has done it before. An I.B.M. research fellow largely unknown outside a small fraternity of physicists, Mr. Parkin puttered for two years in a lab in the early 1990s, trying to find a way to commercialize an odd magnetic effect of quantum mechanics he had observed at supercold temperatures. With the help of a research assistant, he was able to manipulate the alignment of electronics to alter the magnetic state of tiny areas of a magnetic data storage disc, making it possible to store and retrieve information in a smaller amount of space. The huge increases in digital storage made possible by giant magnetoresistance, or GMR, made consumer audio and video iPods, as well as Google-style data centers, a reality.”

So what’s the latest bit of wizardly Parkin is working on?

“Mr. Parkin thinks he is poised to bring about another breakthrough that could increase the amount of data stored on a chip or a hard drive by a factor of a hundred. If he proves successful in his quest, he will create a ‘universal’ computer memory, one that can potentially replace dynamic random access memory, or DRAM, and flash memory chips, and even make a ‘disk drive on a chip’ possible. It could begin to replace flash memory in three to five years, scientists say. Not only would it allow every consumer to carry data equivalent to a college library on small portable devices, but a tenfold or hundredfold increase in memory would be disruptive enough to existing storage technologies that it would undoubtedly unleash the creativity of engineers who would develop totally new entertainment, communication and information products.”

Like many innovations, nobody really knows what other innovators will do with it until they actually get it in their hands. The fact that people are already talking about replacing flash drives is remarkable. Flash drives have just been perfected to the stage where computer makers are replacing traditional hard drives with flash drives. If Parkin’s universal drive proves marketable, it could replace flash drives not too many years down the road. Anyone who owns a digital camera, smart phone, PDA, video game machines like the Wii, and so forth, knows that flash memory cards are everywhere. Markoff reports over the next five years flash memory should be capable of storing up to 50 gigabytes on a single chip.

“However, flash memory has an Achilles’ heel. Although it can read data quickly, it is very slow at storing it. That has led the industry on a frantic hunt for alternative storage technologies that might unseat flash. Mr. Parkin’s new approach, referred to as ‘racetrack memory,’ could outpace both solid-state flash memory chips as well as computer hard disks, making it a technology that could transform not only the storage business but the entire computing industry.”

So what is racetrack memory? For one thing, it’s three dimensional.

“His idea is to stand billions of ultrafine wire loops around the edge of a silicon chip — hence the name racetrack — and use electric current to slide infinitesimally small magnets up and down along each of the wires to be read and written as digital ones and zeros. His research group is able to slide the tiny magnets along notched nanowires at speeds greater than 100 meters a second. Since the tiny magnetic domains have to travel only submolecular distances, it is possible to read and write magnetic regions with different polarization as quickly as a single nanosecond — far faster than existing storage technologies. If the racetrack idea can be made commercial, he will have done what has so far proved impossible — to take microelectronics completely into the third dimension and thus explode the two-dimensional limits of Moore’s Law, the 1965 observation by Gordon E. Moore, a co-founder of Intel, that decrees that the number of transistors on a silicon chip doubles roughly every 18 months.”

If this sounds too complicated to work, you wouldn’t be alone in your skepticism according to Markoff. But he also advises that skeptics would be foolhardy to write Parkin off too early.

“There is no shortage of skeptics at this point. Giant storage companies like Seagate Technology are starting to turn toward flash to create a generation of hybrid storage systems that combine silicon and rotating disk technologies for speed and capacity. But Seagate is still looking in the two-dimensional realm for future advances. ‘There are a lot of neat technologies, but you have to be able to make them cost-effectively,’ said Bill Watkins, Seagate’s chief executive. So far, the racetrack idea is far from the Best Buy shelves and it is very much still in Mr. Parkin’s laboratory here. His track record, however, suggests that the storage industry might do well to take notice of the implications of his novel nanowire-based storage system in the not too distant future.”

Markoff concludes with the tantalizing suggestion, offered by Mark Dean, vice president for systems at IBM Research, that if Parkin succeeds his innovation could move the information age “into a world that is more data-centric than computing-centric.” What that means, Markoff writes, is “that racetrack memory could blur the line between storage and computing, providing a key to a new way to search for data, as well as store and retrieve data. And if it does, Mr. Parkin’s experimental physics lab will have transformed the computing world yet again.” All I can say is, “intriguing.”