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Computer memory


Random access memory (RAM) is the best known form of computer memory. RAM is considered "random access" because you can access any memory cell directly if you know the row and column that intersect at that cell.

The opposite of RAM is serial access memory (SAM). SAM stores data as a series of memory cells that can only be accessed sequentially (like a cassette tape). If the data is not in the current location, each memory cell is checked until the needed data is found. SAM works very well for memory buffers, where the data is normally stored in the order in which it will be used (a good example is the texture buffer memory on a video card). RAM data, on the other hand, can be accessed in any order.

RAM Basics
Similar to a microprocessor, a memory chip is an integrated circuit (IC) made of millions of transistors and capacitors. In the most common form of computer memory, dynamic random access memory (DRAM), a transistor and a capacitor are paired to create a memory cell, which represents a single bit of data. The capacitor holds the bit of information -- a 0 or a 1 (see How Bits and Bytes Work for information on bits). The transistor acts as a switch that lets the control circuitry on the memory chip read the capacitor or change its state.

A capacitor is like a small bucket that is able to store electrons. To store a 1 in the memory cell, the bucket is filled with electrons. To store a 0, it is emptied. The problem with the capacitor's bucket is that it has a leak. In a matter of a few milliseconds a full bucket becomes empty. Therefore, for dynamic memory to work, either the CPU or the memory controller has to come along and recharge all of the capacitors holding a 1 before they discharge. To do this, the memory controller reads the memory and then writes it right back. This refresh operation happens automatically thousands of times per second.

This refresh operation is where dynamic RAM gets its name. Dynamic RAM has to be dynamically refreshed all of the time or it forgets what it is holding. The downside of all of this refreshing is that it takes time and slows down the memory.

Memory cells are etched onto a silicon wafer in an array of columns (bitlines) and rows (wordlines). The intersection of a bitline and wordline constitutes the address of the memory cell.


Memory is made up of bits arranged in a two-dimensional grid.
In this figure, red cells represent 1s and white cells represent 0s.
In the animation, a column is selected and then rows are charged to write data into the specific column.

DRAM works by sending a charge through the appropriate column (CAS) to activate the transistor at each bit in the column. When writing, the row lines contain the state the capacitor should take on. When reading, the sense-amplifier determines the level of charge in the capacitor. If it is more than 50 percent, it reads it as a 1; otherwise it reads it as a 0. The counter tracks the refresh sequence based on which rows have been accessed in what order. The length of time necessary to do all this is so short that it is expressed in nanoseconds (billionths of a second). A memory chip rating of 70ns means that it takes 70 nanoseconds to completely read and recharge each cell.

Memory cells alone would be worthless without some way to get information in and out of them. So the memory cells have a whole support infrastructure of other specialized circuits. These circuits perform functions such as:

  • Identifying each row and column (row address select and column address select)

  • Keeping track of the refresh sequence (counter)

  • Reading and restoring the signal from a cell (sense amplifier)

  • Telling a cell whether it should take a charge or not (write enable)

Other functions of the memory controller include a series of tasks that include identifying the type, speed and amount of memory and checking for errors.

Static RAM uses a completely different technology. In static RAM, a form of flip-flop holds each bit of memory (see How Boolean Logic Works for details on flip-flops). A flip-flop for a memory cell takes four or six transistors along with some wiring, but never has to be refreshed. This makes static RAM significantly faster than dynamic RAM. However, because it has more parts, a static memory cell takes up a lot more space on a chip than a dynamic memory cell. Therefore, you get less memory per chip, and that makes static RAM a lot more expensive.

So static RAM is fast and expensive, and dynamic RAM is less expensive and slower. So static RAM is used to create the CPU's speed-sensitive cache, while dynamic RAM forms the larger system RAM space.

Memory Modules
Memory chips in desktop computers originally used a pin configuration called dual inline package (DIP). This pin configuration could be soldered into holes on the computer's motherboard or plugged into a socket that was soldered on the motherboard. This method worked fine when computers typically operated on a couple of megabytes or less of RAM, but as the need for memory grew, the number of chips needing space on the motherboard increased.

The solution was to place the memory chips, along with all of the support components, on a separate printed circuit board (PCB) that could then be plugged into a special connector (memory bank) on the motherboard. Most of these chips use a small outline J-lead (SOJ) pin configuration, but quite a few manufacturers use the thin small outline package (TSOP) configuration as well. The key difference between these newer pin types and the original DIP configuration is that SOJ and TSOP chips are surface-mounted to the PCB. In other words, the pins are soldered directly to the surface of the board, not inserted in holes or sockets.

Memory chips are normally only available as part of a card called a module. You've probably seen memory listed as 8x32 or 4x16. These numbers represent the number of the chips multiplied by the capacity of each individual chip, which is measured in megabits (Mb), or one million bits. Take the result and divide it by eight to get the number of megabytes on that module. For example, 4x32 means that the module has four 32-megabit chips. Multiply 4 by 32 and you get 128 megabits. Since we know that a byte has 8 bits, we need to divide our result of 128 by 8. Our result is 16 megabytes!

The type of board and connector used for RAM in desktop computers has evolved over the past few years. The first types were proprietary, meaning that different computer manufacturers developed memory boards that would only work with their specific systems. Then came SIMM, which stands for single in-line memory module. This memory board used a 30-pin connector and was about 3.5 x .75 inches in size (about 9 x 2 cm). In most computers, you had to install SIMMs in pairs of equal capacity and speed. This is because the width of the bus is more than a single SIMM. For example, you would install two 8-megabyte (MB) SIMMs to get 16 megabytes total RAM. Each SIMM could send 8 bits of data at one time, while the system bus could handle 16 bits at a time. Later SIMM boards, slightly larger at 4.25 x 1 inch (about 11 x 2.5 cm), used a 72-pin connector for increased bandwidth and allowed for up to 256 MB of RAM.

From the top: SIMM, DIMM and SODIMM memory modules

As processors grew in speed and bandwidth capability, the industry adopted a new standard in dual in-line memory module (DIMM). With a whopping 168-pin connector and a size of 5.4 x 1 inch (about 14 x 2.5 cm), DIMMs range in capacity from 8 MB to 128 MB per module and can be installed singly instead of in pairs. Most PC memory modules operate at 3.3 volts, while Mac systems typically use 5 volts. Another standard, Rambus in-line memory module (RIMM), is comparable in size and pin configuration to DIMM but uses a special memory bus to greatly increase speed.

Many brands of notebook computers use proprietary memory modules, but several manufacturers use RAM based on the small outline dual in-line memory module (SODIMM) configuration. SODIMM cards are small, about 2 x 1 inch (5 x 2.5 cm), and have 144 pins. Capacity ranges from 16 MB to 512 MB per module. An interesting fact about the Apple iMac desktop computer is that it uses SODIMMs instead of the traditional DIMMs.

Error Checking
Most memory available today is highly reliable. Most systems simply have the memory controller check for errors at start-up and rely on that. Memory chips with built-in error-checking typically use a method known as parity to check for errors. Parity chips have an extra bit for every 8 bits of data. The way parity works is simple. Let's look at even parity first.

When the 8 bits in a byte receive data, the chip adds up the total number of 1s. If the total number of 1s is odd, the parity bit is set to 1. If the total is even, the parity bit is set to 0. When the data is read back out of the bits, the total is added up again and compared to the parity bit. If the total is odd and the parity bit is 1, then the data is assumed to be valid and is sent to the CPU. But if the total is odd and the parity bit is 0, the chip knows that there is an error somewhere in the 8 bits and dumps the data. Odd parity works the same way, but the parity bit is set to 1 when the total number of 1s in the byte are even.

The problem with parity is that it discovers errors but does nothing to correct them. If a byte of data does not match its parity bit, then the data are discarded and the system tries again. Computers in critical positions need a higher level of fault tolerance. High-end servers often have a form of error-checking known as error-correction code (ECC). Like parity, ECC uses additional bits to monitor the data in each byte. The difference is that ECC uses several bits for error checking -- how many depends on the width of the bus -- instead of one. ECC memory uses a special algorithm not only to detect single bit errors, but actually correct them as well. ECC memory will also detect instances when more than one bit of data in a byte fails. Such failures are very rare, and they are not correctable, even with ECC.


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