Tech Tuesday: October 2011 Archives

It's another in an irregular series - it's another Tech Tuesday!

We've all seen how computer hardware has progressed at an astronomical rate over the past 40 years or so, going from something that would fill a room and use magnetic core memory, reel-to-reel magnetic tape drives, and fanfold paper pouring out of printers to something that fits in the palm of your hand with millions of times more computing power than those old mainframes.

But despite all of the progress, the basic technology behind it hasn't changed all that much, only gotten smaller. The CPUs and peripheral ICs that are the heart of any computer are all based upon silicon semiconductor material technology that's been around since 1948. The supporting electronic circuitry uses the same resistors, capacitors, and inductors that have been around since the electronics age started, though again in smaller form. Nothing really new has been added to the repertoire in some time...until now.

Enter the memristor, the fourth basic electronic component to add to the aforementioned resistors, capacitors, and inductors.

While memristor theory itself has been around for 40 years, it wasn't until 2008 that it became a reality. And now the same folks that brought it to life, Hewlett Packard, have plans to use it to create better solid state memory devices which can be used in place of flash memory (used in a host of devices like iPods, smart phones, USB thumb drives, and the newer solid state hard drives), as well as other types of computer memory such as DRAM (this includes most of the various types of SDRAM used in computers today and over the past few decades) and SRAM.

One of the disadvantages of flash memory is that each 'memory' cell that records a bit has a limited number of write cycles before it wears out. This weakness means some kind of algorithm must be used that assures each cell is written to no more than any other. This is also known as wear leveling. Memristors do not suffer from this problem, meaning the number of write cycles is unlimited.

Another advantage of memristors: they can be put on the processor chip itself, making for very fast systems-on-a-chip that do not require external memory to operate.

The days of spinning magnetic storage medium (meaning the traditional hard-disk drives we all know and love) are numbered, and memristor technology may be the last shove that sends it to a long overdue retirement as it replaces memory technology at all levels. The days of waiting for your computer to boot up may also be coming to an end as memristors replace the RAM in your computer, because memristors don't lose the data stored in them when the power is shut off. You'll be able to turn your computer on and it will come up exactly where it was when you shut it off. Of course that might not be a good thing you're running Windows, if you know what I mean.

Expatriate New Englanders

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