Samsung-Grandis spotlights MRAM potential—and uphill climb


Korean semiconductor giant Samsung Electronics has acquired Grandis, a maker of spin-transfer torque random access memory (STT-RAM), a flavor of magnetic random-access memory (MRAM). The only details disclosed were that it closed in July, covering "the full scope" of Grandis technology, assets, and HR, and will be folded into Samsung's memory chip R&D operations.

MRAM's promise is for its nonvolatility, power efficiency, and operation at ultrahigh speeds, for applications requiring high-density memory or lower power consumption (e.g. smart phones). It's also touted for its scalability, beyond 32nm or whenever current memory technologies finally lose steam. However, current memory technologies have continued to scale well enough to keep such next-gen memory technologies at bay???Intel famously said back in 2003 that NAND flash wouldn't be able to scale past the 60nm node, and now it's at 20nm and counting, notes Jim Handy from Objective Analysis, and Toshiba/Sandisk reportedly have a 19nm device dubbed "1X" and another called "1Y" in the works suggesting another node in the hopper.

Perhaps this Samsung-Grandis deal is no more than IP positioning, "a preemptive move by Samsung to secure potential IP and technology in the MRAM arena, and not necessary representing a significant move forward in bringing the technology to mass production," says Michael Yang, principal analyst for memory and storage at IHS iSuppli. Note that Toshiba and Hynix recently announced their own MRAM partnership, aiming to eventually create a production JV and cross-license patents, joining forces to minimize risk and accelerate MRAM's pace toward commercialization. Hynix CEO Oh Chul Kwon called MRAM "our next growth platform," while Toshiba's Kiyoshi Kobayashi pledged to "strongly promote initiatives" integrating products from MRAM to NAND to HDD.

Keep in mind that Samsung already has put its bet down on phase-change memory (which it calls PRAM), and claims to be shipping actual devices. (Others touting improvements in PCM over the past few months: an IBM/industry/academia consortia, Numonyx/Micron, Samsung, and KAIST.) Buying Grandis suggests Samsung is at least covering its IP bases in next-gen memory tech???or maybe it's even an outright change of strategic direction, Handy speculates.

In the end, it all comes back to scalability. As long as memory makers continue to extend existing memory technologies' limits???and at higher volumes and lower costs???next-gen memory technologies won't get the hard push they need to prove manufacturing cost-competitiveness and achieve commercialization. ??? J.M.

Solid State Technology | Volume 54 | Issue 8 | August/September 2011

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