What is racetrack memory?

This experimental technology could change the face of how we store data


With data being generated, collected and processed by organisations across the world on an exponential basis, there’s a rising demand for a better standard of hardware that can keep up with it. Researchers have, in light of this, been turning their attentions to alternatives to the systems that we have today, hoping to find a form of memory that can store much more data than we can today.

Racetrack memory is one emerging technology that’s expected to offer a viable replacement for the forms of memory that we use today, including hard disk drives (HDDs) and flash memory. Also known as domain-wall memory (DWM), this is a non-volatile kind of solid-state memory that may one day hold 100 times the amount of data that can be stored on nay system commercially available at the moment, according to its creator, IBM

The company claims that this technology could have the potential to allow handheld devices, even, to hold a few thousand movies, run for weeks on end on a single battery charge cycle, and be practically unbreakable. The drives fitted with racetrack memory may also be cheaper than flash memory, and might even be roughly the same cost as traditional HDD storage. It’s therefore said to combine “the best of both worlds” of the two main kinds of memory currently in commercial use.

How does racetrack memory work?

DWM uses a technology known as spintronics. What this involves is using the strength and orientation of a magnetic field produced by an electron as it spins, in addition to its electronic charge, in solid-state devices. In this sense, sold-state refers to both the types of SSD drives fitted into our devices today, as well as technologies from years gone by such as vacuum tubes. Spintronics has been a technology in development since the 80s, although it’s only been applied in a practical way over the past couple of decades. Only in 2007, IBM researchers published a scientific paper on racetrack memory in the American Physical Society’s Physical Review Letters. This was followed by a further paper in the journal Science.

As described in the abstract of the 2008 paper, racetrack memory "comprises an array of magnetic nanowires arranged horizontally or vertically on a silicon chip". These nanowires, measuring around 50nm in diameter, form the so-called racetrack.

To use a metaphor coined by Stuart Parkin, one of the pioneers of racetrack memory, the nanowires are like skyscrapers with each floor of each skyscraper containing a single bit of data. A transistor at the bottom of the wire shoots spin polarised electric currents up and down the wires, which moves the data up and own.

As with other electronic memory, it uses reading and writing heads located near the storage medium, in this case, the nanowires which then cause elements of the medium to lie one way or the other, encoding the data onto it in binary form.

Where it differs is that it doesn't write just to a single side of the storage medium. Instead, it writes on the whole of the "domain wall" of the nanowires, making it one of the first examples of 3D data storage.

This massively increases the quantity of data that can be held on a single wire.

"In this way, each transistor can store not just one bit of data, as in all other solid-state memory, but rather 100 bits," Parkin said in a 2011 profile. "This means that one can have a solid-state memory with the same low cost of a disk drive but with a performance 10 million times better!"

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What are the advantages of racetrack memory?

The primary advantage of racetrack memory is how cost-effective it is. While the price of solid-state memory has decreased markedly in recent years, traditional spinning disk hard drives are still far cheaper.

Because racetrack memory can pack so much data onto single nanowires, per transistor it's a cheaper form of storage than current solid-state memory technology, hence the comparison with HDDs.

It's also much, much faster to read and write data than on any extant technology. The researchers behind the technology predict it will be able to read or write a bit of information in ten nanoseconds or less. By contrast, a hard disk would take around three million nanoseconds to do the same.

What are the disadvantages of racetrack memory?

Despite it being around for some time now, racetrack memory is still considered an experimental technology. This is because working at the nanoscale while also trying to tackle some of the whims of quantum physics comes with certain obstacles.

One of the encountered challenges is the issue with domain walls - they can move or stop at random, with no definitive way of preventing this from happening. 

Another common challenge is that even the smallest imperfection in the wire (“small” is defined as "detectable only with an x-ray microscope") has the power to significantly reduce read/write times to the point that the performance is closer to that of an HDD.

When can I buy a racetrack memory storage device?

Answering this question is not as straightforward as you would expect. According to Parkin’s most recent estimates, you might be able to purchase a racetrack memory storage device in around five years, but only if there’s sufficient investment prior to that time.

However, there have not been any further updates since 2007 and a few of the above-mentioned issues are yet to be overcome. Unfortunately, unless someone produces a solution preventing domain walls from randomly moving, there's not much chance of memory storage devices hitting the market anytime soon.

On the other hand, taking into account sufficient support, racetrack memory has the potential to revolutionise the way we utilise and experience data storage as well as retrieval. However, we might just have to be patient and hope for the best.

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