Spansion and Virident Systems teamed up to introduce a memory chip and software Tuesday that the companies claim can grab data quickly and use less energy than conventional memory in data center servers.
Spansion, headquartered in Sunnyvale, Calif., has developed a new memory chip called EcoRAM which, combined with the hardware and software offerings from startup Virident, could replace the dynamic random access memory (DRAM) that has played a crucial role in computers for decades.
Computer makers have used DRAM to fetch data quickly from hard drives for processing by the microprocessor, or the brain of the computer. The memory is cheap and works well, so DRAM has been a key component for personal computers and servers.
Spansion and Virident believe they can get a piece of the $58.1 billion DRAM market by taking advantage of a type of memory that in the past couldn’t compete with DRAM in speed.
They also hope to win over Websites such as Google and Facebook that need many server farms to manage traffic and data. These server farms use plenty of power, and computer and software companies have been developing products to make the servers run more efficiently.
Google's plan to build a data center in Iowa that would use electricity from coal-fired power plant caused a stir last year, in spite of its assurance that it would offset the carbon. After all, Google has been positioning itself as a renewable-energy champion with its greentech initiative called RE
“DRAM used to be the cheapest technology out there. Today we cross over,” said Bertrand Cambou, CEO of Spansion, during a webcast Tuesday. “EcoRAM will be cheaper than DRAM so that customers will save more money and put more capacity in place.”
Spansion’s EcoRAM chip uses a type of flash memory called NOR, which has fast read speed. NOR is often used when portable devices, such as cell phones, are turned on, in order to quickly retrieve all of the operating system information the devices need to be ready for use.
NOR’s write speed is slower than its cousin NAND flash, which is typically used for storing music, video and other data in portable devices. Some computer makers, such as IBM, have begun to offer NAND storage to replace conventional disc drives. NAND’s slower read speed makes it less suitable for retrieving data quickly, which is a must-have ability for data centers serving heavily-used sites.
Unlike conventional NOR memory, however, Spansion said it has engineered one with faster read and write speed, making it comparable to DRAM, Cambou said.
Conventional NOR would take five hours to write 1 terabyte of data while EcoRAM can do the same in 30 minutes, he said. In a chart he presented over the Webcast, EcoRAM is slightly slower than DRAM.
Spansion also can pack more storage capacity on a chip with NOR, so more information can be searched and retrieved quickly. A server with 32 gigabytes of EcoRAM will use the same amount of power (10 watts) as 4 gigabytes of DRAM, Cambou said.
Given the current design of a conventional server, Spanion and Virident reason that Internet companies can buy one EcoRAM-based server in place for four conventional ones.
Virident, founded in 2006 in Milpitas, Calif., has provided the blueprint that would make it easy for computer makers to slot EcoRAM in the spot formerly occupied by DRAM.
The startup started working on chips, software and other hardware technologies two and a half years ago and lined up Spansion along the way to make flash memory a good replacement for DRAM. It also received an undisclosed investment from Spansion last year, when it raised $13 million in a first round of funding.
Virident’s software coordinates the work between the microprocessors and EcoRAM. It tricks the processors into believing that they are dealing with DRAM, and it instructs EcoRAM to retrieve data quickly, said Raj Parekh, founder and CEO of Virident, via the Webcast. Parekh was the chief technology officer of Sun Microsystems.
Virident’s technology, which isn’t ready for release, is called GreenGateway, said Bill Glazier, vice president for business development and marketing at the company.
No word yet on which server makers will put EcoRAM and GreenGateway into their computers. Spansion and Virident plan to announce customers this fall, Glazier said.
Entering a new market will not be easy for the companies. DRAM makers such as Samsung and Micron also are engineering more efficient chips to shave data center’s energy cost. Persuading computer makers such as Hewlett-Packard and Dell to switch, which would require changes to the server designs, will not be an easy feat.