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Example of writable volatile random-access memory: Synchronous Dynamic RAM modules, primarily used as main memory in personal computers, workstations, and servers.
Computer memory types
Volatile
Non-volatile

Random-access memory (usually known by its acronym, RAM) is a form of computer data storage. Today, it takes the form of integrated circuits that allow stored data to be accessed in any order (i.e., at random). The word random thus refers to the fact that any piece of data can be returned in a constant time, regardless of its physical location and whether or not it is related to the previous piece of data.[1]

By contrast, storage devices such as magnetic discs and optical discs rely on the physical movement of the recording medium or a reading head. In these devices, the movement takes longer than data transfer, and the retrieval time varies based on the physical location of the next item.

The word RAM is often associated with volatile types of memory (such as DRAM memory modules), where the information is lost after the power is switched off. Many other types of memory are RAM, too, including most types of ROM and a type of flash memory called NOR-Flash.

Contents

History

An early type of widespread writable random-access memory was the magnetic core memory, developed from 1949 to 1952, and subsequently used in most computers up until the development of the static and dynamic integrated RAM circuits in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Before this, computers used relays, delay line/delay memory, or various kinds of vacuum tube arrangements to implement "main" memory functions (i.e., hundreds or thousands of bits), some of which were random access, some not. Latches built out of vacuum tube triodes, and later, out of discrete transistors, were used for smaller and faster memories such as random-access register banks and registers. Prior to the development of integrated ROM circuits, permanent (or read-only) random-access memory was often constructed using semiconductor diode matrices driven by address decoders.

Overview

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Types of RAM

Top L-R, DDR2 with heat-spreader, DDR2 without heat-spreader, Laptop DDR2, DDR, Laptop DDR
1 Megabit chip - one of the last models developed by VEB Carl Zeiss Jena in 1989

Modern types of writable RAM generally store a bit of data in either the state of a flip-flop, as in SRAM (static RAM), or as a charge in a capacitor (or transistor gate), as in DRAM (dynamic RAM), EPROM, EEPROM and Flash. Some types have circuitry to detect and/or correct random faults called memory errors in the stored data, using parity bits or error correction codes. RAM of the read-only type, ROM, instead uses a metal mask to permanently enable/disable selected transistors, instead of storing a charge in them.

SRAM and DRAM are volatile, other forms of computer storage, such as disks and magnetic tapes, have been used as persistent storage in traditional computers. Many newer products instead rely on flash memory to maintain data when not in use, such as PDAs or small music players. Certain personal computers, such as many rugged computers and netbooks, have also replaced magnetic disks with flash drives. With flash memory, only the NOR type is capable of true random access, allowing direct code execution, and is therefore often used instead of ROM; the lower cost NAND type is commonly used for bulk storage in memory cards and solid-state drives.

Similar to a microprocessor, a memory chip is an integrated circuit (IC) made of millions of transistors and capacitors. In the most common form of computer memory, dynamic random access memory (DRAM), a transistor and a capacitor are paired to create a memory cell, which represents a single bit of data. The capacitor holds the bit of information — a 0 or a 1 . The transistor acts as a switch that lets the control circuitry on the memory chip read the capacitor or change its state.

Memory hierarchy

Many computer systems have a memory hierarchy consisting of CPU registers, on-die SRAM caches, external caches, DRAM, paging systems, and virtual memory or swap space on a hard drive. This entire pool of memory may be referred to as "RAM" by many developers, even though the various subsystems can have very different access times, violating the original concept behind the random access term in RAM. Even within a hierarchy level such as DRAM, the specific row, column, bank, rank, channel, or interleave organization of the components make the access time variable, although not to the extent that rotating storage media or a tape is variable. The overall goal of using a memory hierarchy is to obtain the higher possible average access performance while minimizing the total cost of the entire memory system (generally, the memory hierarchy follows the access time with the fast CPU registers at the top and the slow hard drive at the bottom).

In many modern personal computers, the RAM comes in an easily upgraded form of modules called memory modules or DRAM modules about the size of a few sticks of chewing gum. These can quickly be replaced should they become damaged or when changing needs demand more storage capacity. As suggested above, smaller amounts of RAM (mostly SRAM) are also integrated in the CPU and other ICs on the motherboard, as well as in hard-drives, CD-ROMs, and several other parts of the computer system.

Swapping

If a computer becomes low on RAM during intensive application cycles, many CPU architectures and operating systems are able to perform an operation known as "swapping". Swapping uses a paging file, an area on a hard drive temporarily used as additional working memory. Excessive use of this mechanism is called thrashing and is generally undesirable because it lowers overall system performance, mainly because hard drives are far slower than RAM. However, if a program attempts to allocate memory and fails, it may crash.

Other uses of the "RAM" term

Other physical devices with read–write capability can have "RAM" in their names: for example, DVD-RAM. "Random access" is also the name of an indexing method: hence, disk storage is often called "random access" (Wiki:PowerOfPlainText, Fortran language features#Direct-access files, MBASIC#Files and input/output, Java Platform, Standard Edition#Random access, indexed file) because the reading head can move relatively quickly from one piece of data to another, and does not have to read all the data in between. However the final "M" is crucial: "RAM" (provided there is no additional term as in "DVD-RAM") always refers to a solid-state device.

Often, RAM is a shorthand in on-line conversations for referring to the computer's main working memory.

RAM disks

Software can "partition" a portion of a computer's RAM, allowing it to act as a much faster hard drive that is called a RAM disk. Unless the memory used is non-volatile, a RAM disk loses the stored data when the computer is shut down. However, volatile memory can retain its data when the computer is shut down if it has a separate power source, usually a battery.

Shadow RAM

Sometimes, the contents of a ROM chip are copied to SRAM or DRAM to allow for shorter access times (as ROM may be slower). The ROM chip is then disabled while the initialized memory locations are switched in on the same block of addresses (often write-protected). This process, sometimes called shadowing, is fairly common in both computers and embedded systems.

As a common example, the BIOS in typical personal computers often has an option called “use shadow BIOS” or similar. When enabled, functions relying on data from the BIOS’s ROM will instead use DRAM locations (most can also toggle shadowing of video card ROM or other ROM sections). Depending on the system, this may or may not result in increased performance, and may cause incompatibilities. For example, some hardware may be inaccessible to the operating system if shadow RAM is used. On some systems the benefit may be hypothetical because the BIOS is not used after booting in favor of direct hardware access. Of course, somewhat less free memory is available when shadowing is enabled.[2]

Recent developments

Several new types of non-volatile RAM, which will preserve data while powered down, are under development. The technologies used include carbon nanotubes and approaches utilizing the magnetic tunnel effect. Amongst the 1st generation MRAM, a 128 KiB (128 × 210 bytes) magnetic RAM (MRAM) chip was manufactured with 0.18 µm technology in the summer of 2003. In June 2004, Infineon Technologies unveiled a 16 MiB (16 × 220 bytes) prototype again based on 0.18 µm technology. There are two 2nd generation techniques currently in development: Thermal Assisted Switching (TAS)[3] which is being developed by Crocus Technology, and Spin Torque Transfer (STT) on which Crocus, Hynix, IBM, and several other companies are working[4]. Nantero built a functioning carbon nanotube memory prototype 10 GiB (10 × 230 bytes) array in 2004. Whether some of these technologies will be able to eventually take a significant market share from either DRAM, SRAM, or flash-memory technology, however, remains to be seen.

Since 2006, "Solid-state drives" (based on flash memory) with capacities exceeding 64 gigabytes and performance far exceeding traditional disks have become available. This development has started to blur the definition between traditional random access memory and "disks", dramatically reducing the difference in performance. There is also active research in the field of plastic magnets, which switch magnetic polarities based on light.[citation needed]

Some kinds of random-access memory, such as "EcoRAM", are specifically designed for server farms, where low power consumption is more important than speed. [5]

Memory wall

The "memory wall" is the growing disparity of speed between CPU and memory outside the CPU chip. An important reason for this disparity is the limited communication bandwidth beyond chip boundaries. From 1986 to 2000, CPU speed improved at an annual rate of 55% while memory speed only improved at 10%. Given these trends, it was expected that memory latency would become an overwhelming bottleneck in computer performance. [6]

Currently, CPU speed improvements have slowed significantly partly due to major physical barriers and partly because current CPU designs have already hit the memory wall in some sense. Intel summarized these causes in their Platform 2015 documentation (PDF)

“First of all, as chip geometries shrink and clock frequencies rise, the transistor leakage current increases, leading to excess power consumption and heat... Secondly, the advantages of higher clock speeds are in part negated by memory latency, since memory access times have not been able to keep pace with increasing clock frequencies. Third, for certain applications, traditional serial architectures are becoming less efficient as processors get faster (due to the so-called Von Neumann bottleneck), further undercutting any gains that frequency increases might otherwise buy. In addition, partly due to limitations in the means of producing inductance within solid state devices, resistance-capacitance (RC) delays in signal transmission are growing as feature sizes shrink, imposing an additional bottleneck that frequency increases don't address.”

The RC delays in signal transmission were also noted in Clock Rate versus IPC: The End of the Road for Conventional Microarchitectures which projects a maximum of 12.5% average annual CPU performance improvement between 2000 and 2014. The data on Intel Processors clearly shows a slowdown in performance improvements in recent processors. However, Intel's new processors, Core 2 Duo (codenamed Conroe) show a significant improvement over previous Pentium 4 processors; due to a more efficient architecture, performance increased while clock rate actually decreased.

Security concerns

Contrary to simple models (and perhaps common belief), the contents of modern SDRAM modules are not lost immediately when the computer is shut down; instead, the contents fade away, a process that takes only seconds at room temperatures, but which can be extended to minutes at low temperatures. It is therefore possible to recover any data stored in ordinary working memory (i.e. the SDRAM modules).[7] This is sometimes referred to as a cold boot attack, aka ice-man attack.

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Strictly speaking, modern types of DRAM are therefore not truly (or technically) random access, as data are read in burst, although the name DRAM / RAM has stuck. However, many types of SRAM, ROM, OTP, and NOR flash are still random access even in a strict sense.
  2. ^ "Shadow Ram". http://hardwarehell.com/articles/shadowram.htm. Retrieved 2007-07-24. 
  3. ^ The Emergence of Practical MRAM http://www.crocus-technology.com/pdf/BH%20GSA%20Article.pdf
  4. ^ http://www.eetimes.com/news/latest/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=218000269
  5. ^ "EcoRAM held up as less power-hungry option than DRAM for server farms" by Heather Clancy 2008
  6. ^ The term was coined in Hitting the Memory Wall: Implications of the Obvious (PDF).
  7. ^ Cold Boot Attacks on Encryption Keys

External links


Simple English

Random access memory (or simply RAM) is the memory or information storage in a computer that is used to store running programs and data for the programs. Data (information) in the RAM can be read and written quickly in any order. Normally, the random access memory is in the form of computer chips. Usually, the contents of RAM are accessible faster than other types of information storage but are lost every time the computer is turned off.

Different types of RAM

There are several types of RAM used in modern computers. Prior to 2002, most computers used single data rate (SDR) RAM. Most computers made since use either double data rate (DDR), DDR2, or DDR3 RAM. DDR2 allows stored data to be moved and used more quickly than DDR, so that the computer's processor can keep working quickly without having to wait for data as long or as often, and DDR3 technology works even faster.

Different kinds of RAM usually will not work together in the same computer. Most computers can only use one kind of RAM. Some can use a small number of different kinds. Different kinds of RAM often have differently shaped connectors so that they can only be connected to computers they will work in.

Other kinds of memory

Information that the computer always needs, that does not often change, is normally kept in read-only memory (ROM), which does not lose its contents when the computer is turned off. Such items include the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System), which stores the most basic commands for the computer, telling it how it should start up. The BIOS can be compared to the part of your brain that tells your heart how to beat. This is an important part.


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