Racetrack memory

November 15, 2010, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne
The bits of information stored in the wire are simply pushed around inside the tape using a spin polarized current, attaining the breakneck speed of several hundred meters per second in the process. Credit: IBM Almaden Research Center

Imagine a computer equipped with shock-proof memory that's 100,000 times faster and consumes less power than current hard disks. EPFL Professor Mathias Klaui is working on a new kind of "racetrack" memory, a high-volume, ultra-rapid non-volatile read-write magnetic memory that may soon make such a creature possible.

Annoyed by how long it took his computer to boot up, Klaui began to think about an alternative. Hard disks are cheap and can store enormous quantities of data, but they are slow; every time a computer boots up, 2-3 minutes are lost while information is transferred from the hard disk into RAM (). The global cost in terms of lost productivity and energy consumption runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars a day.

Like the tried and true VHS videocassette, the proposed solution involves data recorded on . But the similarity ends there; in this system the tape would be a nickel-iron nanowire, a million times smaller than the classic tape. And unlike a magnetic videotape, in this system nothing moves mechanically. The bits of information stored in the wire are simply pushed around inside the tape using a spin polarized current, attaining the breakneck speed of several hundred meters per second in the process. It's like reading an entire VHS cassette in less than a second.

In order for the idea to be feasible, each bit of information must be clearly separated from the next so that the data can be read reliably. This is achieved by using domain walls with magnetic vortices to delineate two adjacent bits. To estimate the maximum at which the bits can be moved, Kläui and his colleagues* carried out measurements on vortices and found that the physical mechanism could allow for possible higher access speeds than expected. Their results were published online October 25, 2010, in the journal Physical Review Letters. Scientists at the Zurich Research Center of IBM (which is developing a racetrack memory) have confirmed the importance of the results in a Viewpoint article. Millions or even billions of nanowires would be embedded in a chip, providing enormous capacity on a shock-proof platform. A market-ready device could be available in as little as 5-7 years.

Racetrack memory promises to be a real breakthrough in data storage and retrieval. Racetrack-equipped computers would boot up instantly, and their information could be accessed 100,000 times more rapidly than with a traditional hard disk. They would also save energy. RAM needs to be powered every millionth of a second, so an idle computer consumes up to 300 mW just maintaining data in RAM. Because Racetrack memory doesn't have this constraint, energy consumption could be slashed by nearly a factor of 300, to a few mW while the memory is idle. It's an important consideration: computing and electronics currently consumes 6% of worldwide electricity, and is forecast to increase to 15% by 2025.

Explore further: Beating the back-up blues

More information: Direct Determination of Large Spin-Torque Nonadiabaticity in Vortex Core Dynamics, Phys. Rev. Lett. 105, 187203 (2010)

Related Stories

Beating the back-up blues

April 3, 2009

That sinking feeling when your hard disk starts screeching and you haven't backed up your holiday photos is a step closer to becoming a thing of the past thanks to research into a new kind of computer memory.

What Comes After Hard Drives?

October 23, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- The ability to store and retrieve data is an important component of today's computers, as well as other modern electronic devices such as cell phones, video game consoles, and camcorders. Since their invention ...

Recommended for you

Information engine operates with nearly perfect efficiency

January 19, 2018

Physicists have experimentally demonstrated an information engine—a device that converts information into work—with an efficiency that exceeds the conventional second law of thermodynamics. Instead, the engine's efficiency ...

Team takes a deep look at memristors

January 19, 2018

In the race to build a computer that mimics the massive computational power of the human brain, researchers are increasingly turning to memristors, which can vary their electrical resistance based on the memory of past activity. ...

Artificial agent designs quantum experiments

January 19, 2018

On the way to an intelligent laboratory, physicists from Innsbruck and Vienna present an artificial agent that autonomously designs quantum experiments. In initial experiments, the system has independently (re)discovered ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

4 / 5 (1) Nov 15, 2010
Sounds like bubble memory again...

Big problem with that was organising data to access it efficiently. FIFO does have a significant latency as block sizes rise...
4 / 5 (1) Nov 15, 2010
read would be fast, but what about write?
4 / 5 (1) Nov 15, 2010
A one bit version would be non-volitile RAM and this racetrack version is a solid state disk. What is the density ?
5 / 5 (1) Nov 15, 2010
Surely this is a replacement for the hard disk, so what is the relevance of the power required to refresh the DRAM, it's not a DRAM replacement since it doesn't offer random access, and is unlikely to be anywhere near the speeds of DRAM anyway.

it may offer some advantages compared to HDD, but then so does flash memory which has huge capacity and zero retention power requirements, but with nand flash for bulk storage there is negligible latency for reading any block, so what is the real benefit.
i.e. access time for write / read, Density, susceptibility to corruption, and manufacturing costs ( including packaging )?.
5 / 5 (1) Nov 15, 2010
Old news, this has been even here earlier:
not rated yet Nov 15, 2010
i foresee a hybrid setup where a few small SSD chips provide cache in raid mode and low latency and the attached racetrack several TB of raw size, this might slash the price/Gb with near full SSD performance
not rated yet Nov 15, 2010
Solid state drives are much faster for booting even than SCSI (I had 15k rpm SCSI) ~ my old socket 478 computer with a solid state boot drive takes 75 seconds to load Windows Server 2003 (from cold to HDD idling).
not rated yet Nov 16, 2010
For next gen storage I think the "holographic storage" hard disks by Inphase Technologies (www.inphase-technologies.com/) are interesting. I would just like the units to get a bit smaller and their prices to come down a bit more.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.