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Evolutionary and revolutionary advances in memory
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“I have always found the best remedy to future shock and the "oh
wow" factor is to remember that we are living in our
past. The highest tech of today will be the Stone Age
tools of tomorrow.”
Table of Contents
Elephants are reputed to never forget.
If this fable were true, then perhaps, even though
their brains are relatively small, the elephant must have
found a way to pack lots of memory into its brain’s
limited space. Which
is exactly what reader Sander Olson tells us that a Swedish
company, ThinFilm (http://www.thinfilm.se/index2.htm),
is doing. Not
increasing the packing density of pachyderm gray matter, but
as in that famous line from The Graduate, ThinFilm sees
immensely dense memory futures -- in “plastics.”
Rather special plastic, of course, where a very thin
sheet of the polymer is sandwiched between two tiny grids of
electrodes. At each intersection of the checkerboard of electrodes (one
set on top of, and the other below the polymer sheet), they
claim that a bistable memory cell pops into existence.
A voltage applied to a given cell can modify the organic
nature of the polymer at that spot, changing it from one
state to another. And
that state can be read at a later time.
Because this “state change” is to the chemical
nature of the polymer at that location on the sheet, the
state is non-volatile – this memory, unlike today’s
typical RAM, won’t lose its mind when the power goes out.
Which would make it very “pocket device friendly.”
So – we have a “one” or a “zero.”
Without, you’ll note, any silicon in the memory
array! In fact,
ThinFilm believes that this technology can be produced using
“roll to roll” manufacturing techniques, similar to how
a newspaper is printed, which could lead to huge economies
of scale and dirt cheap memory.
But what’s particularly interesting about this idea, is
its density. Today,
a typical S-RAM memory cell takes up between four and six
square micrometers of area. By comparison, ThinFilm says that their polymer cells would
each occupy but one quarter of a square micrometer – quite
ThinFilm believes that they can shrink the memory to this
extent because there are no active (transistor) elements
within the memory matrix, as is the case with today’s
memory – ThinFilm’s memory cells are defined only by the
passive matrix of crisscrossed electrodes.
The active elements that are needed to address the
memory cells and to perform the read and write operations
can be located at the edge of the matrix or, alternatively,
under or above the memory matrix. Which also opens new packaging structures, where the memory
could be placed on top of or below another chip.
This would result in far higher packing density than
we’re used to: consider
that a gigabit of contemporary S-RAM requires from 1.5 to
6.5 billion transistors, while ThinFilm’s polymer memory
would require only a half-million active elements!
And if that isn’t dense enough, these “memory
sheets” can be stacked one atop the other, for 3D density.
What would such dense plastic memory mean to us? According to ThinFilm, a single credit card-sized memory
device built with this technology could store 60,000 DVD
movies; or 126 YEARS of MP3 songs; or 400,000 CDs, or
250 million high definition digital pictures.
Now wouldn’t this change a lot of rules…
Of course, claims such as these sound almost too good to
be true, and they may be -- when it comes to bleeding-edge
research, sound skepticism is a good idea.
But ThinFilm’s claims may have some extra
credibility, considering that Opticom ASA owns 87% of
ThinFilm, and Intel owns the rest.
One could well imagine that Intel would want to be
involved in a technology that had the potential to take us
beyond the age of silicon memory.
(And remember -- as entrenched as we are today in the
world of silicon, a change to a radically different memory
technology could well happen – in fact it’s already happened,
as we moved from relay memory, to vacuum tube memory, to
magnetic core memory, to silicon …)
As interesting as ThinFilm’s ideas may be, they’re
not the only player in the organic memory game.
According to the Nov. 14 EE Times, brought to our
attention by reader Kenneth LaCrosse (http://www.electronicstimes.com/story/OEG20011114S0030),
a group of Italian researchers have altered the structure of
a special protein, “Green Fluorescent Protein,” to
create single molecules that each provide one bit of optical
effect, these individual molecules can be addressed by one
of two specially tuned lasers; one laser forces the molecule
into a “dark state,” while the other returns it to its
“bright state.” Since
another laser can “read” which of these two non-volatile
states the molecule is in, we have an optical biological
molecular memory cell!
And it may be easy to construct large 3D arrays of
these memory molecules, according to National Enterprise for
NanoScience physicist Vittorio Pellegrini,
“Since the active element
of the device is a protein, it is possible to develop
volumetric memory devices in which the proteins are forced
It’s NOT Just Memory…
Of course it isn’t only “memory” that’s on the
verge of the Lilliputian.
As we’ve followed in recent issues, computing
elements themselves are teasing us with revolutionary new
ways of shrinking, even to the point of complete transistors
composed of but a single molecule (http://www.theharrowgroup.com/articles/
20011119/20011119.htm#_Toc530466221), and of
transistors made out of carbon nanotubes (http://www.theharrowgroup.com/articles/
Now, as readers Victor Panlilio, Peter Quodling, and
others have pointed out, Ehud Shapiro of Israel’s Weizmann
Institute has developed a specialized DNA computer so small,
that a trillion of them fit into one test tube!
At this point, these DNA computers, the first whose
input, output, and software are all DNA molecules(!), are
specifically designed to process other DNA molecules, such
as for DNA sequencing.
But as described by the Nov. 21 BBC (http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/sci/tech/
newsid_1668000/1668415.stm), DNA computers have
already been experimentally used to solve more traditional
According to Shapiro (http://in.news.yahoo.com/011121/107/199x5.html),
"The living cell
contains incredible molecular machines that manipulate
information-encoding molecules such as DNA and RNA (its
chemical cousin) in ways that are fundamentally very similar
Over and above DNA’s computing capabilities, it holds
the potential for huge amounts of very tiny storage –
densities 100,000 times greater than today’s hard disks!
Another way to look at this, as told in the Nov. 22
is that one cubic centimeter of DNA can hold the information
stored on one trillion CDs.
Think of the MP3 player you could have…
Is It Soup Yet?
Revolutionary -- I can’t yet judge the
likelihood that ThinFilm’s technology, or fluorescent
molecular memory, or DNA computing and storage, might
actually make it into the marketplace.
And of course it may come to pass that none of these
particular advances ever do.
But even if one or more of these ideas fail, they
still represent good demonstrations of how brilliant
scientists and engineers just insist on finding new
technologies, and new techniques to explore.
Which is why I feel very confident that one (or more)
of these or other revolutionary advances will indeed hit a
all – history is full of our doing exactly that!
Evolutionary -- And then again, even if NONE of
these revolutionary advances yield fruit, we have
fascinating, merely “evolutionary” changes ahead,
highlighted by Intel’s recent announcement of a “TeraHertz
transistor” (brought to our attention by reader Sean Burke
This tiny transistor can switch on and off one
trillion times each second – far faster than the
transistors in today’s Pentiums, and they consume far less
power (and generate far less heat.)
Dan Hutchinson, president of VLSI Research, put it
this way in the Nov. 26 New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/26/technology/
ebusiness/26CHIP.html?todaysheadlines) as he
commented on Intel’s ability to build things on its chips,
“one atomic layer at a time:”
"They've solved some of
the electrical problems that looked like brick walls."
Which really shouldn’t surprise any of us.
That, after all, has been, and will remain, the name
of the technology game!
Intel expects this new type of transistor to make its way
into microprocessors within four years, and they expect that
by the end of this decade, this will lead to commodity chips
“Twenty-five times more
transistors in processors than in current ones, running at
ten times the speed, yet with no increase in power.”
Even more aggressively, the Nov. 26 ZDNet News suggests
that billion-transistor chips could be a reality as early as
That’s over a billion transistors in a commodity CPU
chip (compared to today’s 42 million), running at perhaps
20 gigahertz (compared to today’s 1 to 2 gigahertz).
Within six years.
And from merely “evolutionary” advances.
Now -- factor in the “revolutionary” possibilities…
Table of Contents
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Table of Contents
My recent comments about bringing Windows XP up on my
home-office network (http://www.theharrowgroup.com/articles/
20011119/20011119.htm#_Toc530466223) generated a
lot of interest and questions from you, so this week I’ll
begin an occasional discussion of my “XPerience.”
I began this adventure by installing XP-Home onto an older
notebook (which met XP’s hardware requirements), since a
disaster here would not affect my day-to-day activities.
Although I attempted to install XP over the existing
Win98 system (having first removed several applications and
utilities that the XP Upgrade Advisor (http://www.microsoft.com/WINDOWSXP/
complained about), this tack never succeeded for me – the
installation failed each time, although I do hear that this
works well for many people.
to be deterred, I reformatted the disk with the NTFS file
system (this newer on-disk structure is more robust than the
previous FAT file systems, and it enables several new
features), and I did a clean install, which executed
did then have to go to the sound and video chip set vendors’
Web sites to collect the latest drivers (XP came up using
drivers that worked quite well, but they didn’t provide
all the bells and whistles these chip sets are capable of.)
I had expected XP’s new online driver acquisition
process to make this unnecessary, but overall it was a
we discussed last issue, I did run into several peripherals
whose manufacturers don’t yet offer XP drivers, but I’ve
found that some of them now offer cumbersome but effective
workarounds to let me to use their existing Windows 2000
drivers on XP, until their true XP drivers become available.
But finding these took some hunting, and sometimes
required the assistance of people “in the know.”
(Thanks!, to those of you who helped.)
Bottom line: XP
works. In fact,
like the Energizer Bunny before it, XP just keeps on
hasn’t crashed yet in two weeks!
And it shuts down completely when I ask it to (rather
than hanging during the process, as was my norm with Win98.)
And XP’s power management features now work
correctly with the hardware.
And I can now run any number of programs at one time,
without exhausting one of Win9x’s Achilles’ heels -- its
very limited pool of User/System/GDI resources, which often
caused my systems to hang or crash!
(Now to be fair, not everyone has experienced such a checkered past
with Win9x. Some
readers, such as Paul Witheridge, report a far more positive
“I must strongly disagree! I
wouldn't put myself through the agony of XP for all the tea
in China when my Win98SE has been running over three weeks
with nary a hiccup, re-boot or slightest instability.
And this is just the current run.
I don't normally keep a log of time between reboots
but I hardly ever re-boot except when an installation
must admit that I shouldn’t HAVE to be this
ecstatic about an operating system simply doing what it’s
supposed to do (I’ll get to some of XP’s newer features
in future columns). But
the reality is that the evolution of Win9x and the extensive
backwards compatibility that it maintained (no easy feat),
just didn’t deliver “stability” as job-one.
though, with XP, I now have a notebook that – simply
works. So far, I give it very high marks.
Having put some XPerience under my belt, and having worked
through the various driver issues, it seemed time to take
the next plunge and upgrade my main desktop system to XP.
In this case I chose to upgrade to XP-Pro so that I
could experiment with (and benefit from) several of its
additional features, such as:
file encryption; finer control of local and network
access permissions for files and resources; the ability to
allow a client (such as a notebook out on the road) to “take
over” the desktop and actually “become” the user,
remotely (something I’ve always called Virtual Visit); the
ability to host “remote help” sessions, where similar
technology can be used to assist a remote user having
problems; and more.
Since I really wanted to have an “easy out” if I ran
into Xtreme problems with the XP-Pro installation, this
seemed like a good time to pick up a new disk drive ($179
for 60 gigabytes spinning at 7200 RPM – three-tenths of a
penny per megabyte, compared to $60/megabyte 27 years ago.)
I installed the new disk so that it would be the first to
boot, even if my original Win98 disk was online (although
for safety’s sake, I left the original disk disconnected
during the installation), and I performed a clean
installation, adding the latest drivers for the sound and
video cards. Again,
it Just Worked! And
it’s kept on working, with (so far) not a single crash or
the way, just to be clear, as is always the case in The
Harrow Technology Report, these are my opinions exclusively;
Microsoft was not involved with this review in any way.)
I then installed all of the applications that I normally
use (I’ve learned to keep my current application CDs all
in one place), and I then reconnected the old Win98 disk,
which mounted as a random drive letter (not C:, which is now
the XP disk). It
was then easy to transfer all my old data files to the new
Soon, once I’ve become convinced that I’ll never have
to go back to the Win98 system (I sincerely hope not!), I’ll
be freeing up that drive to experiment with XP’s “mirroring”
(which maintains two identical copies of the main disk,
allowing the system to automatically and seamlessly switch
to the “mirrored” disk if the primary disk fails); with
the ability to dynamically “grow” a disk, such as C:,
simply by extending it onto another physical disk; and other
interesting new capabilities.
Yes, on one hand I do feel conflicted in waxing so
enthusiastic about XP since this IS how things should
have worked all along.
And we should remember that there are other
contemporary operating systems out there that work very well
indeed such as Linux and its UNIX brethren, and the Mac’s
OS-X. But as Windows does retain the lion’s share of applications
that most people choose to use, I’m going to focus in this
direction for the time being.
And -- because Windows does (now / finally / so far)
work so well!
I don’t yet have Office XP, so I can’t describe the
total integration that Microsoft is touting, but from my so
far very limited XPerience, I am impressed.
And I am very glad that I took the XP-plunge and didn’t
wait, as had been my plan.
May your XPeriences be as positive!
Table of Contents
Changing Economics, FAX-Style -- Commenting on our
recent discussion about Email as an alternative (if not
necessarily a robust one) to physical mail (http://www.theharrowgroup.com/articles/
Martin Wilcocks, in light of today's decreasing long
distance costs and increasing postal rates, does this rather
telling version of "new math:"
"I think that you
overlooked another electronic method to bypass the US mail
service - the fax! When
I occasionally have to bill outside customers, I use my
faxmodem to do it.
With AT&T phone charges at 7c/min, I have to fax 5 pages
to reach the cost of a US postage stamp, and if I mail 5
pages I already have to add a second ounce stamp anyway,
unless I print double-sided. It’s faster than Express Mail, FedEx and the like, it’s
targeted at the intended recipient only, and it sometimes
beats e-mail for delivery speed!"
The figures are obvious in retrospect,
but I'd never stopped to think that a multi-page fax can be
less expensive than a stamp.
Not to mention the additional costs of the envelope
(another penny), plus the 2-3 cents per sheet to print the
Table of Contents
if someone told you about a car that could spray an oil
slick, send out pepper spray, toss tacks on the road, lay
down a smoke screen, see in the dark, or shock an unwelcome
someone trying to open the door, you'd probably come to the
conclusion that the car belonged to the fictional James
Bond. But it
seems, according to the June 1 TechWeb (http://www.techweb.com/wire/story/TWB20010601S0003),
that a heavily modified Ford F-350 truck can do all these
things and more, as a U.S. Army prototype called “SmarTruck.”
a poignant example of fiction, er, driving reality, the
spokesperson for the Army's National Automotive Center,
Germane Fuller, confirms that, "the truck's design
team drew inspiration from 007 movies."
course it's probably not going to show up as the next Yuppie
vehicle of choice – you see, it doesn't come with latte