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Triumvirate heralds use of flash in PCs, works on standard

Posted: 04 Jun 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:NAND flash modules? Intel Santa Rosa? notebook desktop PCs?

The use of flash memory in notebooks and desktops has received a boost with Dell Inc., Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp. working together on a standard for NAND flash module controllers. Separately, Intel is beginning to explore the possibilities for using the internal flash modules in servers.

The triumvirate agreed to form the Non-Volatile Memory Host Controller Interface (NVMHCI) working group, chaired by Intel. The group will draft by the end of the year a software interface linking a PC and its operating system to a flash module controller.

The effort essentially aims to turn into an open standard work Intel did designing its so-called Turbo Memory cards now being used in some notebook computers based on the company's Santa Rosa platform. Intel developed the hardware controller, module and software drivers for the 1-2Gbyte modules as part of its Robson program, and now wants to open that work up so other companies can develop the modules, and Microsoft can support them natively in Windows.

The Turbo memory cards are used as a form of cache memory to speed up booting a system and loading applications. In addition, the cards save power by reducing the amount of time a notebook needs to spin up a hard disk.

As the effort gains traction, Intel expects the modules will be used in a broader range of notebooks and eventually appear in desktops as well. Intel and others are also working on new uses for the cards, including reducing the time to load a computer game or a new game level or consolidating the use of flash across a PC.

"There's a whole road map of things we want to do," said Rick Coulson, director of I/O Architecture at Intel. Most of the new uses mapped out by Intel and PC makers are still considered confidential, he added.

"We're very bullish about flash in the platform. As it matures people will find new uses for it," said Knut Grimsrud a senior principal engineer in Intel's storage technologies group. "This starts in notebooks because that's where there is the most value in power savings, but there are performance benefits available for all platforms," he added.

"Nonvolatile memory solutions enable better system performance and lower power consumption as well as facilitate additional benefits such as smaller form factors, quieter systems and improved robustness," said Liam Quinn, director of communications for technology strategy and architecture at Dell, in a statement.

All set for 08?
The NVMHCI group will essentially develop a register-level host controller interface for flash modules, in line with similar PC interfaces used for USB and Serial ATA interfaces. Modules and chipsets using the standard could emerge by the end of 2008 or early 2009, Coulson said.

The controller specification is one part of what engineers will need to build a standard flash module for PCs. Separately, Intel has been working with memory chip and module makers on the so-called Open NAND Flash Interface (ONFI).

A first version of the ONFI spec was released to members late in December. It basically sets conventions around variations in flash chip interfaces used by multiple chipmakers. Hynix Semiconductor Inc., Intel, Micron Technology Inc. and STMicroelectronics are members of the group and are expected to release flash chips using the standard, but no compliant products have been announced yet.

The group is now working on a more ambitious ONFI version 2.0. It aims to at least triple the current 40Mbps data rate of the interface and add an abstraction module to isolate software from how flash chips manage bad blocks. It will also define a physical specification and connector for PC flash modules.

The ONFI 2.0 effort will also be finished before the end of the year, said Grismrud.

At the recent Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, Intel got interest from OEMs in a version of the flash modules tailored for servers, said Coulson. The company is now gathering requirements for such modules.

"Right now we are focusing on clients needs and we think we know what they are," said Coulson. "We are interested in doing things for the enterprise, but it is still early days," he added.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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