BEIJING Intel Corp. is preparing to sample a 128-Mbit phase-change memory that will roll into volume production in the second half of the year using 90-nanometer technology.
The device, codenamed Alverstone, is Intel's first phase-change memory product and is being billed as a NOR flash compatible replacement. Intel is the second-largest NOR flash vendor behind Spansion Inc.
Intel unveiled the part on Tuesday at its Spring development forum in Beijing. Intel Chief Technology Officer Justin Rattner said the part has six times the write performance of today's NOR flash and is much more "robust," lasting for at least one million write cycles.
Rattner had originally planned to demo a system using phase-change memory but he ran out of time during his keynote presentation.
Phase-change memory is vying with a handful of other next-generation alternatives, such as FeRAM and MRAM, to replace DRAM and Flash once they are tripped up by scaling limits. Many technologists expect flash to reach its limit at the 45-nanometer or 35-nanometer process node.
The non-volatile memory technology is based on the electrically induced phase change of chalcogenide materials, which have been difficult to manufacture reliably in volumes. Phase-change materials have both crystalline and noncrystalline states that can represent "0" or "1," and it's possible to toggle between them by applying a small reset current.
Rattner said Intel has set "modest" goals by targeting the 128-Mbit part as only a NOR replacement. However, he added "it does demonstrate the performance potential of phase change."
Rattner also said Intel will not only use this first-generation part as a product, but also as a way to fine-tune the phase-change memory mass production process. "If it can be manufactured in high volume and at low cost, it will lead to a lot of rethinking of the memory hierarchy," he said. "It is fundamentally cheaper than DRAM and if it performs well as a fast read-write memory with non-volatility, then it makes a pretty compelling DRAM replacement."
Last summer, Intel joined forces with STMicroelectronics NV to develop phase-change memory. The two companies jointly presented research on the topic at the VLSI Technology Symposium. Although Intel is moving ahead with mass production, STMicro doesn't expect to do so until it ramps up the 45-nanometer process node. STMicro currently has a 128-Mbit large area demonstrator implemented on 90-nanometer process technology.
At the International Electron Devices Meeting in December, several companies claimed major breakthroughs in phase-change memory, although most of these efforts are still in the R&D stage. In one effort, the team of IBM, Macronix and Qimonda AG said they had developed a reliable phase-change memory prototype that switches more than 500 times faster than traditional flash memory technologies.
Other companies pursuing the Holy Grail of a unified memory include Hitachi Ltd., Renesas Technology Corp., and Samsung Electronics.
Both Intel and ST are working on phase-change memory under separate licensing agreements with Ovonyx Inc. Ovonic unified memory dates back to 1970, when it was introduced by Energy Conversion Devices Inc.