What’s Changing In Memory

Innovations in materials and systems will be required for the next generation of computing.


As emerging big data and artificial intelligence (AI) applications, including machine learning, drive innovations across many industries, the issue of how to advance memory technologies to meet evolving computing requirements presents several challenges for the industry.

The mainstream memory technologies, DRAM and NAND flash, have long been reliable industry workhorses, each optimized for specific purposes — as main memory to process large amounts of data and as nonvolatile memory ideal for data storage, respectively. But today these technologies are being challenged in many ways by the demands of AI workloads that require direct and faster access to memory.

Among the questions the industry is facing are, what trends will drive the next decade for memory technologies? How is the industry going to scale and evolve the mainstream memories to provide high-performance, high-density storage and greater functionality? What kind of new memories will be needed for high-performance machine learning and other AI applications, and how can memory technology accelerate overall performance?

The industry is evaluating a variety of options for achieving improvements and coming up with different solutions. There is much deliberation over scaling paths, the types of memory needed for future applications and how system architectures will change to facilitate new concepts like in-memory computing.

Certain characteristics of the future memory landscape are already discernible. What is clear is the role of memory will expand in the AI era.

Vertical scaling continues for 3D NAND with more pairs and multi-tier schemes being pursued to increase storage density. With DRAM, geometric lateral scaling continues, but it is slowing and materials innovation will be needed for further scaling as with 3D NAND. There will likely be more types of specific-purpose DRAM for various advanced applications — the diversity of DRAM is something that is often overlooked.

However, even as the mainstream memories are being scaled towards greater performance and functionality, they may still not be sufficient to support AI technologies like high-performance machine learning. These applications require not only a lot more memory, but faster, higher capacity memory solutions. The consensus is new, different types of memory schemes and technologies are needed.

In-memory computing is an emerging concept making headlines as a means of extending and substantially improving memory. This approach imagines some logic function inside the memory so it performs more than just simple memory. Another idea is having computing architectures designed around memory, much as they are currently designed around the microprocessor. Although memory-centric computing is still in the early stages, what is evident is how the traditional borders of memory tasks are becoming blurred.

Packaging is another key enabler for AI, supporting high-bandwidth memory and the heterogeneous integration of logic computing and memory for high-speed access. The question is which of the different memory packaging configurations will emerge as the most optimal approach for cost and performance.

In summary, diverse memory technologies are needed to deliver the performance and functionality gains to enable the next era of computing. Importantly, this effort will require innovations across the ecosystem — from materials to systems.

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