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IBM, Qimonda, Macronix plot storage tech roadmap

Posted: 06 Nov 2006     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:IBM Corp.  RAM  HDD  IceCube  Qimoda 

In an effort to regain its old edge as a leader in computer storage, the company that invented the HDD used the technology's 50th anniversary to sketch out its advancements in phase-change RAM, tape drives and disc arrays. In doing so, IBM Corp. also aimed to pave the way for the launch of its IceCube effort as a novel class of storage array.

IBM has partnered with Infineon spin-off Qimonda AG and Taiwan's Macronix International Co. Ltd on phase-change RAM. An upcoming technical paper from the trio will report success on the development of devices with features as small as 10nm, a key development in an area where competing magnetic RAM is weak.

Separately, the company said it is on track to commercialize a new class of tape drives with significantly boosted capacity, thanks to the first use of arrays of giant magneto resistive heads. And IBM researchers are developing systems software to expand the capacity and computing clout of disc arrays that handle big pools of storage in the data centre.

Hard drives are still the focus for mainstream storage, though they constitute a consolidating, commodity market. After selling its hard drive business to Hitachi Ltd, IBM now plays only indirectly in that market as a vendor of large hard drive array systems that sit in corporate data centres. Even in the data centre, IBM has had to acknowledge innovators like Network Appliance Inc., whose highly successful network-attached storage systems IBM resells under its own brand.

Conveniently, the future of storage technology may not be in the hard drive, according to IBM researchers. As disc heads approach tens of nanometers in size, progress in drive capacity and bandwidth is slowing from 60 per cent to 100 per cent a year to less than 35 per cent a year, even as the amount of storage shipped each year grows by 50 per cent or more, said Dilip Kandlur, director of storage systems research at IBM's Almaden Research Centre.

Thus IBM is pursuing research in three major areas. It seeks chip-based alternatives to drives with active programs in phase-change RAM and MRAM. It is pushing the frontiers in tape storage, which it expects will have a long life in archival systems. And it is developing software to bring more computing functions to storage arrays.

IBM researchers hope to find a semiconductor memory to replace flash and disks. It will need to have a small cell, low power budget, low cost, 100Mbps transfer rates, support for 1012 read/write cycles and a 10-year life cycle. They believe phase-change RAM holds the most promise.

But MRAM, ferroelectric RAM and a host of other approaches—including several based on nanotech materials—are all contenders. "It's a pretty broad landscape," said IBM research manager Gian-Luca Bona. "Whether we will have one winner is an open question."

IBM leverages disc heads for better tape drives. Arrays of giant magnetoresistive heads will come to tape drives within two years, IBM says.

You're on tape
In the nearly Rs.23,105 crore ($5 billion)-a-year segment for tape drives and media, IBM holds nearly a third of the market and had Rs.6,330.77 crore ($1.37 billion) in sales last year. Within two years, the company will roll out its first drives to use arrays of 16 to 32 giant magnetoresistive heads. Almaden researchers invented GMR heads years ago, and the heads are now standard on most hard drives. Now arrays of GMR heads are seen as crucial for more accurately reading magnetic signals on tape and thus boosting the media's areal density. "We are trying to change the road map for the industry," said Spike Narayan, a senior research manager at IBM.

In May, IBM showed a technology demo of a tape drive using GMR heads to achieve an areal density of 6.67GB/inch2. The demo contained a number of other advances IBM hopes to commercialize, including use of barium ferrite media and a mechanical tracking system that used grooved rollers rather than flanges to steady the tape.

Ultimately, tape drives will use arrays of 64 to 128 GMR heads to eliminate mechanical tracking subsystems. The drives will use sensors to determine which magnetic spots to read on the tape. "That's the holy grail," Narayan said.

IBM is also looking into media with prewritten nano-sized patterns, and it is exploring GMR heads with magnetic-tunnelling junctions. Both are also being explored by hard drive researchers.

At the system level, IBM is preparing to turn its IceCube research project into a shipping product. The novel design creates hard-drive arrays out of modular bricks so users can "pay as they grow" in a manner similar to server blade designs for data centre computers. IceCube purports to offer performance benefits via its high-bandwidth capacitive-coupling interconnect.

Muscular arrays
Other IBM researchers seek to pack more punch into future arrays. One project aims to create application accelerators inside an array for more effective handling of data-intensive computation applications like data mining. The company already offers customers the ability to create two redundant system partitions in its DS8000 arrays using virtualisation software on its embedded Power5 CPU.

Other researchers will develop prototype software this year for a very large archival database, where data can be searched and analysed as though it were part of an online transaction database. The Intelligent Data Storage project aims to use a mix of drives and tape. IBM claims its approach will cost less and use less power than massive arrays of low-cost drives, even for archived storage, without sacrificing performance.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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