New Memory Device Could Increase Server Energy Efficiency

Phil Wilcock
Jan 24, 2011

Every now and then you read about something new that genuinely excites you – whether it actually makes it to production or not is another matter!

Science Daily reports that researchers from North Carolina State University have developed a new device that could mean quite a bit leap in the world of computer memory. This in turn could have significant impact on the efficiency of servers by allowing them to startup faster than they can currently.

As we know, there are two types of computer memory. Slow memory is used in persistent data storage technologies such as flash drives. They allow you to save data for extended periods of time, the nonvolatile devices. Faster memory allows computers to operate quickly, but aren’t able to save data when the computers are turned off. This is your volatile memory, and this is how things have been for decades..

All of that could be set to change however, as a research team from NC State has developed a single “unified” device that can perform both volatile and nonvolatile memory operation and may be used in the main memory.

“We’ve invented a new device that may revolutionize computer memory,” says Dr. Paul Franzon, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the research. “Our device is called a double floating-gate field effect transistor (FET). Existing nonvolatile memory used in data storage devices utilizes a single floating gate, which stores charge in the floating gate to signify a 1 or 0 in the device — or one ‘bit’ of information. By using two floating gates, the device can store a bit in a nonvolatile mode, and/or it can store a bit in a fast, volatile mode — like the normal main memory on your computer.” Sounds pretty good eh?

Real world applications for this technology are quite major.

Firstly, it could allow computers to start immediately, because the computer wouldn’t have to retrieve start-up data from its hard drive – pretty much the Holy Grail of computing for hardware vendors!

Secondly, and this is where I get quite excited, is that this new technology would also allow “power proportional computing.” As we know, servers consume an enormous amount of power, even when there are low levels of user activity. This is why 1E has tackled server power management with NightWatchman Server Edition. We can put servers into a low power state if there is minimal activity, and then bring that system back to full capacity if required. However to date you still can’t completely turn off the power without affecting the main memory.

“The double floating-gate FET would help solve this problem,” Franzon says, “because data could be stored quickly in nonvolatile memory — and retrieved just as quickly. This would allow portions of the server memory to be turned off during periods of low use without affecting performance.”

So in theory, we could see servers being used far more dynamically and efficiently, and the associated energy savings could be enormous. Watch out for a future version of NightWatchman Server Edition that support FET, but not for a while perhaps!

The paper, “Computing with Novel Floating-Gate Devices,” will be published Feb. 10 in IEEE’s Computer. The paper was authored by Franzon; former NC State Ph.D. student Daniel Schinke; former NC State master’s student Mihir Shiveshwarkar; and Dr. Neil Di Spigna, a research assistant professor at NC State. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.

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