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IBM's new racetrack storage takes advantage of advanced quantum mechanics to move tiny magnetic domain walls on which information is stored.  (Source: IBM)
IBM bets big on spintronics, new type of memory which it says will deliver terabyte MP3 players

With computer hardware ever advancing and improving steadily, the question in the hardware development world is not so much "if" but "how?"  IBM believes that it has developed the storage solution for next generation of consumer electronics and computers.  IBM's new storage technology is known as spintronics, and it is betting that it will replace both the solid state drives (flash) and traditional magnetic drives, by offering higher densities at a lower price.

The basic premise of IBM's technology is storing the data on a wire track.  IBM calls the memory "Race Track" memory due to the fact that the data "races" around the memory's track design.  It was developed by IBM Fellow Stuart Parkin and his colleagues, whom are firm believers that the new technology will make older storage methods obsolete.  According to Parkin the benefits are across the board-- much improved read/write times, higher capacities, improved stability, improved durability all at a lower cost than today's memory.

Solid state electronic devices based on the new memory could theoretically store 500,000 songs or around 3500 movies on a standard MP3 hard drive, and be accessed at lower power consumption.  The data would be safe, according to IBM from degradation for decades.  Further the power consumption would be so low the battery could run for weeks on a single charge.

While Parkin's enthusiasm is certainly infectious and the idea remains intriguing, it turns out the technology relies on some exotic science that prevents it from being commercially realized today.  The new memory utilizes a field of quantum computing known as spintronics, which involves reading and writing data by altering an electron's spin.  Currently no known commercial ventures using such technology exist, so its commercial implementation remains far off.

Undeterred, Parkin states, "It has been an exciting adventure to have been involved with research into metal spintronics since its inception almost 20 years ago with our work on spin-valve structures.  The combination of extraordinarily interesting physics and spintronic materials engineering, one atomic layer at a time, continues to be highly challenging and very rewarding. The promise of racetrack memory - for example, the ability to carry massive amounts of information in your pocket - could unleash creativity leading to devices and applications that nobody has imagined yet."

The research of Parkins and his colleagues is outlined in their paper "Current Controlled Magnetic Domain-Wall Nanowire Shift Register”.  As is evident by the title, the current working concept of the memory utilizes the exotic carbon compound nanowires.  Fortunately, nanowires are a bit better researched and understood than quantum computing, and have seen limited commercial development.

On a technical standpoint the memory's operation is reliant on a phenomena in spintronics known as spin momentum transfer.  This allows for a magnetic shift register, which shifts a series of closely space domain walls.  Basically data is continuously pushed along through a nanowire.  The rotation of data through the looped circuit is analogous to the spin of the drive platter on traditional magnetic hard drives, albeit much faster, in that it brings the information to the read/write head.

Parkins states that magnetic domain wall data storage obstacles can be overcome by using spin polarized current along with the magnetized walls.  The resulting spin transfer torque will cause the domain wall to move.  He claims that the memory type is entirely new and never before considered.

The new memory type, like current flash drives would use no moving parts, limiting failure.  Further, as it stores information in electrons, IBM claims that the data would experience no degradation over time.  IBM brags that the drive could be rewritten “endlessly without any wear and tear.”

IBM believes it has the solution for the "How?" of improving memory densities and performance on hand.  Now the question they admit remains uncertain is "When?"  The researchers predict that in a decade the technology might see commercialization.  This seems overly optimistic over despite modest gains in quantum computing.

Still, one can only hope that IBM's new technology lives up to its bold statements and can be commercialized.  After all, it's good to look at things from a fresh perspective, and it would be even better to have one of those terabyte sized MP3 players, which the researchers are talking about, in your pocket.


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RE: Isn't it great...
By jtemplin on 4/11/2008 10:03:44 PM , Rating: 2
Do you mean that the rate of technological progress is increasing faster than average folks can keep up with? Or that and people are actively getting dumber? Either way it doesn't look good for joe consumer (but its looking great for Best Buy and their ilk right?)


RE: Isn't it great...
By onwisconsin on 4/12/2008 1:26:48 AM , Rating: 2
I think he's trying to say as something becomes more mainstream, or better yet if someone wants to appeal to a larger audience, they have to "dumb it down" to appeal to a larger spectrum or range of knowledge. Joe average consumer doesn't know what a GB or TB is so he needs it explained to him in a way he needs it understood.

Some catch on and understand, many don't.


RE: Isn't it great...
By Starcub on 4/12/2008 2:17:19 PM , Rating: 2
Units like "pictures" and "movies" are non-standard and unspecific. Most people probably also don't know how many pictures or movies they have stored on their drives. Therefore, such units don't give the consumer a good reference to judge relative capacities. However, just about everyone who has owned/used a computer probably knows how much space they have left on their drives and about how much space their data occupy (in GB). Considering how unbiquitous PC's are, the standard convention for storage units would have been more usefull IMHO.


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