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The Internet has fueled the rise of corporate data centers, which will be full of something like 6.8 million computer servers by the year 2010. Each data center consumes the energy of about 25,000 homes.

That’s why the new EcoRAM computer architecture described today by flash memory chip maker Spansion and Silicon Valley firm Virident Systems is important. It is one of the keys to making servers and the data centers that house them more energy efficient.

EcoRAM was announced this summer by Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Spansion, a public company that will make EcoRAM-enabled flash memory chips, and by Milpitas, Calif.-based Virident, which has been working on the idea for the past couple of years. Spansion has licensed the technology from Virident. Now that the companies are releasing more of the technical details, it’s time for their rivals to start shaking in their boots.

The idea is to get rid of dynamic random access memory, the workhorse chips that store data when a computer is turned on. DRAM chips are dense, cheap and fast. Many servers store data on DRAM chips, not hard disks, because DRAM is much faster at accessing data for people browsing web pages. Flash memory stores data permanently, but it has historically been slower and less dense than DRAM. Now it’s faster.

The beauty of EcoRAM is that it plugs right into a computer server, said John Nation, director of corporate marketing at Spansion. Virident has built all of the necessary interfaces to trick the microprocessor in a server into thinking that the flash memory is no different from the DRAM. It works on a server based on Opteron microprocessors from Advanced Micro Devices. (Intel-based versions are coming later.)

Raj Parekh, chief executive of Virident says the EcoRAM flash chips being built by Spansion use about a tenth of the power of the DRAM chips, but they run about 97 percent as fast. They can read data in 250 nanoseconds (a nanosecond is a billionth of a second), which is comparable to DRAM performance and far faster than the multiple milliseconds needed for a hard drive to retrieve data.

Pricing isn’t yet available for the EcoRAM chips, which are expected to hit the market next year. EcoRAM servers are currently being evaluated by a dozen potential customers.

One big advantage is that you can put much more EcoRAM in a server than DRAM. A typical server has 32 gigabytes of DRAM. You can replace that with 512 gigabytes of EcoRAM, which uses about a quarter of the power. That makes the memory capacity of the server much better, so data center operators can either get by with fewer servers or pack more computing power in to the same space and power capacity.

This essentially cuts data center costs by 60 percent, said Parekh. Virident’s solution competes with MetaRAM, a rival headed by Opteron co-architect Fred Weber. Weber’s company has figured out a way to put much more DRAM into the memory modules used by servers.

EcoRAM isn’t good for every kind of server; it’s most useful for instant retrieval of data, as in search queries, rather than large deliveries like videos. Other applications include social networking infrastructure, gene matching, analysis of seismic data, and real-time intelligence analysis.

It’s very interesting to see a start-up, in conjunction with a big company, come up with a solution that could impact multi-billion-dollar memory chip industries. Virident, founded in 2006, is funded by Artiman Ventures, Spansion, and Accel India. It has raised $25 million and has 50 employees in the U.S. and India.

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