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Quick peek at memory testing

Posted: 09 Mar 2016 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:DRAM? NAND Flash? controllers? test? single event upsets?

No electronics is absolutely reliable, but still, as designers, we do strive for that goal. But certain technologies, such as DRAM & NAND Flash, have special issues. Let's talk about test strategies.

NAND Flash, like mechanical storage devices, is by default assumed to be unreliable C an unusual situation in the electronics world. Its unreliability is dealt with by using dedicated controllers. DRAM, on the other hand, is deemed "pretty" reliable. Servers often have error detection (and possibly correction) circuitry, but consumer and commercial machines rarely do. I'll focus on DRAM here.

While most fine-geometry electronics is subject to radiation-induced SEUs (single event upsets), DRAM has the extra disadvantage of being, at heart, an analogue technology. Billions of tiny capacitors must maintain their charge without fail, or at least until the next refresh. If one of those caps is a bit leakier or smaller than it should be, it could result in unreliable operation. What's maddening is that the failure mechanism can be intermittent, or data-related.

As memory timing becomes ever faster, it behooves us to run eye tests as we would on a gigabit serial channel. For example, here's a DDR3 eye at 1.33Gb/s:

(Source: Micron Technology)

What test data should we run, whether software- or hardware-generated, to exercise the eye? Pseudorandom is a good start.

My interest in memory testing dates all the way back to my first computer. After suffering with 512B of memory for a year, I added a 32kB DRAM board! Whether due to bad board design, or really questionable DRAM chip quality, memory errors were frequent, and sometimes subtle. Simple patterns would detect the worst of the errors, but it wasn't till I implemented a pseudorandom test that the rarest errors appeared.

Were these errors due to bad eyes? Probably not. More likely, they arose from pattern sensitivity, where data bits on the DRAM chip interact in some way known only to the chip's designers. Though given the state of PCB design ca. 1980, it's also possible that poor power integrity was the root cause.

As end users of DRAM-bearing machines, we can still perform thorough memory testing through software-only means, such as the excellent Memtest86 program, which includes pseudorandom among its many tests. The bottom line, in my experience, is that pseudorandom is the best way to track down flaky errors that don't show up using other methods.

As designer of a memory sub-system, we're able to go beyond this approach and get probing. Using a pseudorandom pattern not only creates a proper eye diagram for our scope, it will likely uncover any pattern sensitivity problems (though this is more of a per-unit test, whereas you'll only be eye testing in development).

What kind of memory failures have you encountered? And what tests have you implemented for verification and production?

About the author
Michael Dunn has been messing with electronics almost as long as he's been walking. He got his first scope around age 15, and things have been going downhill ever since. The scopes now vie with wine racks, harpsichords, calculators, and 19th century pianos for space. Over the years, he's designed for the automotive, medical, industrial, communications, and consumer industries, as both freelancer and employee, working with analogue, digital, micros, and software.

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