Rambus invents extremely fast memory system for the gadgets of the future

Hoping to advance the speed of everything from computers to game consoles, Rambus is announcing today it has invented an extremely fast way to transfer data through a computer’s memory system.

The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company can transfer data via differential signaling in a memory system at speeds of 20 gigabits per second, or about three times faster than is typical today. If it commercializes the technology, we could see much faster computers, game consoles and graphics cards in the future. Moreover, pretty much any system that uses 3D graphics will be able to deliver better imagery at lower costs and less power consumption, said Steve Woo, technical director at Rambus. These innovations improve the basic plumbing of chips, allowing memory to keep up with exponential increases in processor speeds.

The actual invention is faster “differential signaling for SoC-to-memory interfaces.” To understand what that means takes a little explanation. Rambus designs high-speed memory interfaces, which bridge together different components or chips. Rambus interfaces, for instance, connect the microprocessor and graphics chips with the memory chips inside the PlayStation 3 video game console. Rambus designs the parts, which are used under license by chip makers. It’s been a good business, as Rambus has been around since 1990 and generated $320 million in revenue in 2010. With the new invention, Rambus plans to license the technology to chip makers, who will design chips around them and launch products in the coming years.

Woo said that Rambus started working on the latest technology before 2007, when it announced its Terabyte Bandwidth Initiative. The interface connects a system-on-a-chip, or the brain of a high-end gadget, with the memory. It can send data along that highway at a speed of 20 gigabits per second. It does so by raising the speed limit of the highway, rather than adding more lanes to it.

The good thing about this technology is that it is backward compatible with older memory systems, including the GDDR5 and DDR3 memory chips that are used in most computers today. And Rambus can create the high-speed freeway without melting down the chips since the technology generates only 6 milliwatts ( a milliwatt is a thousandth of a watt) per gigabit of bandwidth. With something called FlexMode, Rambus can introduce the new signaling with no additional pins, which connect a chip to its neighbors on an electronic circuit board. For single-ended signaling (which uses fewer pins), Rambus can handle 12.8 gigabits per second data transfer. Woo said that Rambus has gone down the road it has — of speeding up the flow on the data pathway — because there isn’t much room inside a computer to add more wiring around the edges of computer chips.

“The industry is hitting the limits of what is possible,” Woo said.

All of these innovations are critical to keeping memory from lagging behind advances in processors. If memory isn’t fast enough, it slows down the system dramatically, since a processor can’t fetch data from memory fast enough to stay busy. Woo said that the advances are particularly critical for graphics cards and game consoles, which have an insatiable appetite for memory because the systems have to constantly fetch data from memory to create awesome images at high speeds. Today’s graphics chips can get data from memory at a rate of 128 gigabits per second, and future generations will push that to 1 terabit per second.

The previous record holder in the memory technology was Rambus itself. Rivals include memory chip makers who try to invent their own memory systems. Rambus has applied for patents on the technology, but those have not worked their way through the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office yet. (It usually takes six years). And Rambus has never been shy about exercising its patents. The company has been through years of litigation defending its patents, which are licensed by just about every major chip maker. In December, Rambus filed a patent infringement action against six major chip makers for an unrelated technology.

If there is some kind of PlayStation 4 or Xbox 720 game console being designed somewhere, you can bet that the product designers will strongly consider using the latest Rambus technology. The new Rambus technology is compatible with four-layer or six-layer motherboards, which are the circuit boards that are standard in the computer industry. The technology can be manufactured in a 40-nanometer factory such as those run by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., the industry’s biggest contract chip manufacturer. Rambus is currently in licensing talks with chip makers.

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