Racetrack memory to save us from ourselves

Today’s issue of Science carries a story about a new invention from IBM called Magnetic Domain-Wall Racetrack Memory. It works by storing data in a permalloy nanowire, a thousand times thinner than a human hair. It promises to increase reliability and speed of storage while slashing the amount of energy needed to power it.

The storage density can be hundreds of times that of today’s best flash memories. And, because the wires can be made to loop from the surface of the chip, they overcome the well-known chip density restrictions of Moore’s Law.

Without wishing to demean the technology, the storage wire acts like a chain of magnetised buckets. The read/write switch the polarity or copy the state as the buckets are propelled past using tiny electrical currents. Everything happens at the atomic level.

At the moment disk drives store information cheaply but, because they are mechanical, they are relatively slow at reading and writing. Flash memory is fast at reading but slow at writing. Both have reliability issues over the long term. IBM claims that racetrack memory will be inherently stable and durable.

An MP3 player that can contain half a million songs sounds ridiculous, but it gives an idea of the potential capacity of one of these devices. Because they will use a fraction of the energy of conventional disk drives while providing both speed and reliability, they appear to offer significant environmental benefits in all storage situations.

It’s a shame we’re going to have to wait seven to ten years for them. But, by going public with this development, IBM has just fired the first salvo in a new storage war. Others will be clambering to get in first with high density, highly reliable and energy efficient devices.

This can only be good news for people like us whose lives are so information-centric.

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