Phase-change memory is a nonvolatile memory technology based on changing the material phase and electrical resistance of a chalcogenide layer by the use of electrical heating. It has been touted as possible replacement for both flash memory and DRAM but the technology has proved difficult to scale below 90-nm.
Nonetheless IBM stated that: "With a combination of speed, endurance, non-volatility and density, PCM can enable a paradigm shift for enterprise IT and storage systems within the next five years."
The contribution from IBM's Zurich researchers was to use a modulation coding scheme applied to small clusters of memory cells, to overcome the problem of short-term drift in multi-bit PCM, which causes the stored resistance levels to shift over time, which in turn creates read errors.
In the present work, IBM scientists used four distinct resistance levels, which are due to different amorphous, crystalline proportions between the electrodes, to store the bit combinations 00, 01 10 and 11.
"We apply a voltage pulse based on the deviation from the desired level and then measure the resistance. If the desired level of resistance is not achieved, we apply another voltage pulse and measure again – until we achieve the exact level," said Haris Pozidis, manager of memory and probe technologies at IBM Research Zurich.
However, because of structural relaxation of the atoms in the amorphous state, the resistance increases over time after the phase change, eventually causing errors in the read-out, IBM said. To overcome this IBM applied a coding technique that they claim is tolerant to drift. The technique is based on the fact that, on average, the relative order of programmed cells with different resistance levels does not change due to drift. Therefore by encoding data in a code word that is applied to cluster of memory cells, in this case 7, it is possible to improve the bit error rate at the expense of bit density
IBM reported 1.57