Inside Anobit: Why Apple is investing in flash RAM technology

Posted:
in iPad edited January 2015
Apple's investments in acquiring flash memory expertise and technology appear to be centered around packing more storage capacity into Macs and iOS devices at lower prices, with the same level of component reliability and longevity.



This week, Apple was both reported to be close to acquiring flash memory chip designer Anobit and engaging in plans to set up a semiconductor development center in Israel, where Anobit is located.



Apple already uses Anobit components in is iOS devices and the MacBook Air. The firm's unique flash memory technology, dubbed MSP or "Memory Signal Processing," is designed to enhance the reliability, performance, efficiency and endurance of flash memory.



The pros and cons of flash memory



Unlike DRAM, which stores memory bits using the state of electrical capacitors which must be continuously refreshed with power, NAND flash memory stores bits using floating gate transistors, which do not need to be continually refreshed to maintain their state.



This makes flash memory more energy efficient during operation, and allows it to retain its information even after the device is shut down. The use of flash memory storage in iOS devices and the MacBook Air provides long term storage of software, documents, music and movies without needing a conventional magnetic hard drive for disk storage.







The use of flash storage not only makes these devices quick to boot up and launch apps, but also slimmer, more battery efficient and less fragile than compatible devices using a conventional hard drive for persistent storage. Particularly on iOS devices, the use of fast flash memory also limits the need for large amounts of DRAM, further increasing the devices' battery life.



On the flip side however, flash memory storage is more expensive compared to disk storage, as well as being less reliable and having a shorter life span. The individual cells of flash memory chips eventually wear out and stop working reliably, requiring specialized software to manage their use.



Strengthening flash memory



Earlier this year, Apple incorporated TRIM support in Mac OS X Lion. TRIM is an OS level software technology designed to manage the flakey, short lived nature of flash memory used in Solid State Drives like the MacBook Air's (pictured below).



Anobit's MSP technology attacks the same issues, but does so on firmware level, using sophisticated monitoring of flash memory cells to accurately determine if they are failing or no longer able to reliably store data. These technologies also enable flash memory to continue to function longer than previously possible by simply working around failures.



In addition to enabling flash memory to live longer, MSP also promises to make components faster; it enables data to be pushed to flash memory at speeds that generate more errors, but can then detect and correct the errors.







Cheaper SSDs and flash memory



A second primary benefit to the MSP technology is that it makes less expensive types of flash memory usable for a wider range of applications. Most flash memory used in high speed storage holds one bit per memory cell, known as SLC or "single level cell" memory.



A cheaper type of flash memory known as MLC or "multi level cell" can store two bits per memory cell, making it less expensive to manufacture because it has a higher memory density. A primary problem with MLC is that is more prone to error, requiring more sophisticated management to make it useful.



MSP promises to make cheaper MLC memory components as accurate over the same lifespan as conventional SLC, something that would dramatically change how much storage Apple could pack into its devices and computers at the same price. That would have a huge impact on Apple's ability to compete, as flash memory storage is a significant part of the bill of materials in the devices it builds.



NAND flash is the second most expensive component of the iPad (after the touchscreen display), according to iSuppli, accounting for around ten percent of its total component cost. For the MacBook Air, 64GB of SSD flash memory is similarly estimated to be its second most expensive component (again, after the screen) and roughly the same price as its Intel CPU at a similar 10 percent of the total materials cost.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 42
    iqatedoiqatedo Posts: 1,595member
    Apple is diversifying its capability geographically and technologically, a smart move.
  • Reply 2 of 42
    Thanks Dan.

    I was wondering what this deal was about. Good explanation and good to know.
  • Reply 3 of 42
    wizard69wizard69 Posts: 12,692member
    There is no such thing as Flash RAM, Appleinsider needs to strive for at least a bit of technical accuracy!



    RAM = Random Access Memory



    The flash memory used in Apples devices is NOT random access. That is a significant error that is seen far to often on the net. Beyond that Flash is used as secondary storage in these machines. Real RAM is primary storage, directly addressable by the processor and is seldom used for secondary storage. Access to flash has more in common with accessing a disk drive than it does RAM.
  • Reply 4 of 42
    MacProMacPro Posts: 17,984member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by wizard69 View Post


    There is no such thing as Flash RAM, Appleinsider needs to strive for at least a bit of technical accuracy!



    RAM = Random Access Memory



    The flash memory used in Apples devices is NOT random access. That is a significant error that is seen far to often on the net. Beyond that Flash is used as secondary storage in these machines. Real RAM is primary storage, directly addressable by the processor and is seldom used for secondary storage. Access to flash has more in common with accessing a disk drive than it does RAM.



    Yet I remember using RAM to create .... RAM disks. Virtual disks that acted like hard drives but were in fact in RAM. So isn't this all a bit esoteric?
  • Reply 5 of 42
    iqatedoiqatedo Posts: 1,595member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by wizard69 View Post


    There is no such thing as Flash RAM, Appleinsider needs to strive for at least a bit of technical accuracy!...



    I've designed with Flash and completely overlooked the language that Dan used. \



    However, perhaps unified memory isn't too far away - http://cacm.acm.org/news/104104-ncsu...evice/fulltext
  • Reply 6 of 42
    Nice article. Good move by Apple.
  • Reply 7 of 42
    tylerk36tylerk36 Posts: 1,037member
    There will be a law suit over this. I know, the article doesn't say anything about it but rest assured some company will find a way to sue Apple for the technological knowhow.
  • Reply 8 of 42
    This is a good thing. As soon as they offer 512 Gig in a MB Air, I'm sold...
  • Reply 9 of 42
    poochpooch Posts: 768member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by AppleInsider View Post


    ... to set up a semiconductor development center in Isreal ...



    Quote:
    Originally Posted by wizard69 View Post


    There is no such thing as Flash RAM, Appleinsider needs to strive for at least a bit of technical accuracy!



    oh, stop it. next thing we know you'll be wanting them to proof-read their own articles and check them for spelling and grammar.
  • Reply 10 of 42
    I think it's great that apple is becoming more vertically integrated. I can definitely see how this fits into possible long-term plans. Flash-based hard drives, online app and music stores minimizing the need for optical drives, I definitely see Apple's computers getting much lighter and thinner in the next few years.



    I do wonder though, if there is any kind of anti-trust, anti-competition issue that comes from being too vertically integrated. If Apple makes the best Flash memory hardware (theoretically) and uses everything it makes, that's one thing. Could Apple decline to sell it's hardware to competitors? Probably, but I'm not sure. If Apple does sell to competitors and it puts other Flash hardware makers out of business, would Apple end up with a legal obligation to keep selling its Flash hardware to competitors. It seems unlikely, but when corporations become too vertically integrated, weirds stuff starts to happen.
  • Reply 11 of 42
    realisticrealistic Posts: 1,126member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by acrobratt View Post


    I think it's great that apple is becoming more vertically integrated. I can definitely see how this fits into possible long-term plans. Flash-based hard drives, online app and music stores minimizing the need for optical drives, I definitely see Apple's computers getting much lighter and thinner in the next few years.



    I do wonder though, if there is any kind of anti-trust, anti-competition issue that comes from being too vertically integrated. If Apple makes the best Flash memory hardware (theoretically) and uses everything it makes, that's one thing. Could Apple decline to sell it's hardware to competitors? Probably, but I'm not sure. If Apple does sell to competitors and it puts other Flash hardware makers out of business, would Apple end up with a legal obligation to keep selling its Flash hardware to competitors. It seems unlikely, but when corporations become too vertically integrated, weirds stuff starts to happen.



    Apple doesn't sell its' hardware to competitors now.

    Apple is never going to put the MANY other flash manufacturers out of business.
  • Reply 12 of 42
    wizard69wizard69 Posts: 12,692member
    On the other hand I work with technicians and engineers on a daily basis, by that standard Appleinsider does really well.



    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Pooch View Post


    oh, stop it. next thing we know you'll be wanting them to proof-read their own articles and check them for spelling and grammar.



  • Reply 13 of 42
    wizard69wizard69 Posts: 12,692member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by IQatEdo View Post


    I've designed with Flash and completely overlooked the language that Dan used. \



    It really bothers ne because every time something like that shows up in print a few more people get totally confused.

    Quote:

    However, perhaps unified memory isn't too far away - http://cacm.acm.org/news/104104-ncsu...evice/fulltext



    I can't get to that specific article at the moment, so I will hope that we are ont the same page here. The first issue that comes up is address space, for things like iPad you would need a 64 bit machine. Not that that is far off at all.



    For small embedded systems this is a more common situation. At one time the ARM Linux guys where attempting to up implement expected in place for the Linux kernel. I'm not sure if they ever got anywhere with that. Of course on 32 bit hardware that can be limiting.



    The biggest problem with unified memory systems is what do you do if something get corrupted. You can't just flip a switch for a reboot
  • Reply 14 of 42
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by wizard69 View Post


    There is no such thing as Flash RAM, Appleinsider needs to strive for at least a bit of technical accuracy!



    RAM = Random Access Memory



    The flash memory used in Apples devices is NOT random access. That is a significant error that is seen far to often on the net. Beyond that Flash is used as secondary storage in these machines. Real RAM is primary storage, directly addressable by the processor and is seldom used for secondary storage. Access to flash has more in common with accessing a disk drive than it does RAM.



    This isn't the first time an article by Dan has blatantly pushed this particular technical inaccuracy. Just filter the article in your mind, replacing every instance of the phrase "Flash RAM" with "Flash storage", and your anger level will probably come down a few degrees. I know mine usually does.
  • Reply 15 of 42
    blastdoorblastdoor Posts: 1,889member
    This article implies apple currently uses SLC flash -- I doubt this is true.
  • Reply 16 of 42
    irelandireland Posts: 17,547member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by tmedia1 View Post


    This is a good thing. As soon as they offer 512 Gig in a MB Air, I'm sold...



    Why do you need 512 GB in an Air? Genuine question.
  • Reply 17 of 42
    irelandireland Posts: 17,547member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by acrobratt View Post


    I do wonder though, if there is any kind of anti-trust, anti-competition issue that comes from being too vertically integrated.



    Absolutely not. Apple owes Intel nothing, for example.
  • Reply 18 of 42
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by wizard69 View Post


    There is no such thing as Flash RAM, Appleinsider needs to strive for at least a bit of technical accuracy!



    RAM = Random Access Memory




    This is probably nit-picking at definitions, but what about accessing a flash memory device does not make it a "random access memory"? At the device level, you give it an address and it returns the data in roughly constant time, like a DRAM or SRAM, and unlike a disk or tape. At the software level it can be accessed with read()s and write()s like file IO, but you can also just mmap() it in and use it that way. I think one of the memory vendors actually came out with a flash-backed DRAM DIMM (ecoram or something like that) a while ago.



    I agree that we tend to use it more like we use disks, right now, but there is no inherent reason that has to be the case, especially if you, say, buy a group of NAND designers and have them reduce the block size and trade off some density for better latency. :-)
  • Reply 19 of 42
    This article mentions AirBook and iOS devices, but what about iMac? Does Apple's BTO iMac with solid state drive use NAND or DRAM? Or is a solid state drive totally different? Requires more power? Offers more storage? Please help me understand the difference. Thanks!
  • Reply 20 of 42
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Ireland View Post


    Why do you need 512 GB in an Air? Genuine question.



    To have it serve as a primary (or only) computer. Seriously, if we see that rumored 15" redesign to make it an Air, hard drive capacity will be the last remaining argument against being able to have one as a primary machine.



    Quote:
    Originally Posted by egold44 View Post


    This article mentions AirBook and iOS devices, but what about iMac? Does Apple's BTO iMac with solid state drive use NAND or DRAM? Or is a solid state drive totally different? Requires more power? Offers more storage? Please help me understand the difference. Thanks!



    This is what's in a MacBook Air:







    This is what's in a MacBook Pro or iMac:



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