Is 2012 going to be another breakout year for NAND Flash and Low-Power Design?

It’s just one week into the year, I am increasingly getting the feeling that 2012 is going to be a momentous, tumultuous year for semiconductor technology and low-power system design. Among the many recent events that are giving me this feeling are the changes taking place in the NAND Flash arena. Nearly all low-power system designers depend on NAND Flash in some form because it is currently the technology of choice for storing code and data when a system is in deep low-power/sleep mode or when switched off. We use NAND Flash on chip for microcontrollers. We use NAND Flash chips on board for main storage in mobile phone handsets, tablets, eBook readers, and many other embedded systems. We use NAND Flash cards for removable storage in cameras, camcorders, mobile phone handsets, voice recorders, and media players. Any changes to NAND Flash technology ripple widely through the low-power design landscape like earth tremors.

At least three major changes to NAND Flash technology in the recent past have caught my attention. The first such event I want to discuss in this blog entry is the HMC or Hybrid Memory Cube that Micron first announced last year and is now in joint development with major partners including Samsung and IBM.

I previously wrote about the HMC (see “3D Thursday: Hybrid Memory Cube—Does anyone know what’s happening with IBM and Micron?”) and its design is for high-performance computing systems that require extremely high throughput: 1 Tbit/sec. (See “Want to know more about the Micron Hybrid Memory Cube (HMC)? How about its terabit/sec data rate?”) The HMC is a DRAM example of the kinds of memory modules we’re likely to see from the marriage of 3D IC assembly techniques and advanced NAND Flash devices.

The HMC runs many, many TSVs (through silicon vias) up through a stack of as many as four SDRAM die to access the inherent parallelism of the multiple DRAM arrays on each die. Each proprietary DRAM die in the HMC stack has 16 separate memory arrays, resulting in substantial potential parallelism and consequently, substantial potential memory throughput.

However, the high-performance approach of the HMC is not the only way to harness 3D assembly and semiconductor memory. For example, at the end of last year, I wrote an extended blog describing a thought experiment that employed the HMC design concepts using Wide I/O SDRAM instead of the special NAND Flash chips in the HMC. (See “3D Thursday: Let’s end 2011 with a high-performance DRAM memory stack design. How would you improve it?”) Wide I/O SDRAM presents four independent 128-bit DRAM channels to the host system, resulting in a high level of memory parallelism. Just not as high as for the HMC. In fact, the performance is about half that of the HMC but it’s still pretty good. The same parallelism concepts could be applied to NAND Flash devices designed to a similar Wide I/O specification for NAND Flash. The lower interface speeds enabled by a Wide I/O memory interface port really drop power consumption while maintaining good performance through the parallelism uncovered by the access to the multiple on-chip memory arrays.

I have not heard of any efforts to adopt the Wide I/O interface spec to NAND Flash devices. Not yet. But the move to extracting parallelism from the arrays on all memory chips is too attractive to ignore in a world that perpetually thirsts for bandwidth at low power.

At the end of the year, two other announcements directly related to NAND Flash memory have caught my eye: the introduction of the XQD memory card format and the ONFI 3.0 interface spec. The Compact Flash Association introduced the XQD memory card format in December 2011. The XQD memory card has a slightly larger footprint than an SD memory card and a somewhat smaller footprint than a Compact Flash (CF) memory card. It’s as thick as a CF card. But the really big difference here is the interface to the memory card. The XQD memory card uses a PCIe (PCI Express) interface clocked initially at 2.5 Gbits/sec, resulting in a maximum write speed of 125 Mbytes/sec.

That’s really fast and speed is important when you’re shooting large images at a fast rate, which occurs during HD video recording and at high burst speeds in high-resolution digital still cameras. Both such conditions exist in the new Nikon D4 DSLR, which Nikon launched just last week. The Nikon D4 DSLR can shoot 16.2 Mpixel frames at 10 to 11 frames per second. Normally, DSLRs use in-camera RAM to buffer burst-mode still captures but the Nikon D4 DSLR can accept the new XQD memory cards and Sony introduced the first series of such cards last week, concurrent with Nikon’s introduction of the Nikon D4 DSLR.

Sony claims that its H Series XQD card can accept bursts of 100 uncompressed still images from the Nikon D4 DSLR in continuous shot mode. That’s a huge jump in burst length for a digital still camera and will be invaluable in shooting images of sports activities, for example.

One of the secrets behind the XQD card format’s performance is that PCIe interface port, which is also unique in that it is a memory interface and is not derived from a disk interface. That should mean that a host processor doesn’t need a disk controller to operate an XQD card. The card can be mapped to the host processor’s memory bus and the controller can reside in each memory card. Eliminating the disk controller from the serial chain between the processor and the Flash memory chips should cut costs, reduce power consumption, and boost performance.

All of those benefits are welcome in the world of low-power design. After all, do we really need controllers controlling controllers in an efficient system design? I don’t think so.

Now before you bemoan the need of a controller in each memory card, you should be aware that there already is a controller in each CF and SD memory card. You don’t think that NAND Flash arrays already look like disk drives, do you? We do indeed currently have controllers controlling controllers in existing NAND Flash memory subsystems.

A PCIe interface spec should simplify things somewhat.

The third development that’s caught my eye in the Flash memory arena is the announcement of the ONFI 3.0 interface specification for Flash memory. The ONFI (Open NAND Flash Interface) Working Group introduced the third major revision of the ONFI spec nearly a year ago, in March 2011. What’s new is that there are now products appearing that use ONFI 3.0.

The advantage of the new ONFI specification is that it doubles transfer rates to 400 Mtransfers/sec using the NV-DDR2 200MHz double-data-rate (DDR) protocol while adopting 1.8V SSTL_18 signaling to cut the power dissipation of the interface. See a pattern evolving here? More performance and less power consumption. The question is whether or not ONFI 3.0 is real or not. Well, the memories now seem real because Intel and Micron jointly previewed a 128Gbit NAND Flash device in December with the derivative 64Gbit NAND Flash device going into production now. According to the joint Intel/Micron announcement, the 128Gbit device will be in volume production later this year after a “rapid transition” from the 64Gbit device.

However, an ONFI 3.0 memory device isn’t sufficient. You also need a controller on an SOC that can operate ONFI 3.0 devices. Cadence just introduced an ONFI 3.0 NAND Flash controller IP block and companion PHY IP today along with appropriate verification IP so it’s now possible to include an ONFI 3.0 NAND Flash controller in an SoC design using the standard ASIC flow.

As you can see, there’s a tremendous amount of new technological development going into NAND Flash memory and I see big things ahead this year, all to the benefit of low-power system designers.

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