The Inside Story of Flash Memory‘s Rise in Computers

Imagine booting up your fancy new computer only to be greeted by a "Insert Floppy Disk" message. If we still relied on magnetic media for primary storage, our super slim gadgets with blazing fast processors would be hobbled. Enter flash, a compact, speedy alternative that has now conquered nearly every digital device around us. But how did we get here? Let‘s rewind a few decades for the inside story of how flash memory evolved from an discovery in a Japanese lab to become a pillar underlying modern computing.

The Quest for the Perfect Storage

As personal computing kicked into high gear in the late 1970s, users found themselves perpetually wrestling with removable media. Whether it was finicky 5-inch floppies, low capacity hard drives or short-lived batteries, early systems imposed severe limits on portability and performance. Data storage clearly needed a radical upgrade – ideally something non-volatile yet speedy while consuming minimal power.

Several technologies offered glimmers of hope but faced limitations:

Storage TypeProsCons
Magnetic TapeInexpensive, high capacitySequential access is slow
Floppy disksPortable, removable mediaLow reliability, capacity capped at ~1MB
Optical discsHigher density than magnetic mediaRequires physical movement, manufacturing defects

The holy grail was some sort of solid-state device that acted like RAM but persisted data without power. While integrated circuits seemed promising, no practical solution had surfaced that fit the bill…until one scientist pieced things together.

Floating Gate Transisistors: The Crucial Ingredient

The earliest building block turned out to be a curious variation on standard transistors invented back in 1959. Dubbed floating gate transistors, these sandwich an electrically isolated or floating gate between the control gate and substrate. Applying voltage pulses shifts electrons in and out of this middle layer to represent binary data. Bell Labs engineers recognized potential for non-volatile memory but matching read/write speeds to computing applications proved an insurmountable barrier.

In a breakthrough paper published in 1967 titled "Memory Device Using MNOS Structure", Dawon Kahng and Simon Sze scientifically analyzed charge storage mechanics within these transistors – laying rigorous foundations for eventual adoption. Yet the applicability remained confined to niche military and space systems for another decade marked by incremental enhancements that failed to make an impact. Everything changed when a driven Toshiba engineer connected the dots…

Fujio Masuoka Breathes Life Into Flash Memory

Fujio Masuoka joined Toshiba in 1971 shortly after receiving his Master‘s degree in Engineering. As he researched ways to apply MOSFET transistors for data storage through the 1970s, a lightbulb moment hit in 1980. His insight? Use floating gate transistors not as replacement for DRAM as predecessors attempted, but instead as block-oriented read/write memory. By optimizing writes in larger chunks rather than individual bits, Masuoka devised a practical flash storage solution.

Crucially, the highly parallel implementation delivered breakthrough speed fueled by vastly simplified drive circuitry. Equally notable was the ability to retain data for extended durations without power. After presenting an operational prototype in 1984, Masuoka ensured Toshiba brought his invention to market – kickstarting the flash memory revolution. So where did the catchy name flash come from? The inspiration stemmed from the camera flash-like speed with which this novel memory could erase entire sections in one go!

Tale of Two Flash Memory Types: NAND vs NOR

While Masouka originated the flash concept in 1980, commercialization began in 1984 with Toshiba announcing NAND flash memory chips. As the name hints, NAND structures transistor cells in series resembling NAND logic gates. This compact layout comes at the cost of slower random access that restricts NAND flash to storage duties. Hot on its heels, Toshiba followed up with NOR flash in 1988 – wiring transistors in parallel akin to NOR gates. The penalty is lower density but NOR shines for code execution thanks to faster reads.

Let‘s dive deeper on how NAND and NOR stack up across various metrics:

ParameterNAND FlashNOR Flash
Read SpeedSlowerVery Fast (~RAM)
Write SpeedFasterSlower
Endurance10k – 100k writes per block100k – 10M writes per byte
DensityHigher (lower cost/bit)Lower
InterfacePrimarily SPISupports MPU/bus interfaces

This complementary nature has seen NAND own storage like memory cards or SSDs while NOR focuses on storing firmware like BIOS code. Together, they laid foundations for the cornucopia of flash-powered gadgets over following decades!

Flash Storage Woos Consumers

Sporting densities and speeds exceeding other options, flash etched a foothold through the early 1990s – albeit confined to professional gear where cost was no barrier. Early adopters included Canon still cameras in 1994 followed by an obscure 1996 PDA called Palm Pilot than ran on NAND. Price remained the big hurdle as a 64MB NAND SSD carried eye-watering $1000 price tag. As manufacturing processes matured, flash became capable and cheap enough to debut in mainstream consumer electronics…

USB Drives Replace Floppy Disks

After prices crashed 90% between 1992-1999 courtesy Moore‘s Law, flash leapt into the consumer mainstream – promising to banish our floppy disk nightmares forever! Touch Memory 1MB thumb drives arrived in 2000 with larger capacities quick on their heels. By 2004, flash drives like Kingston‘s DataTraveler packed up to 2GB while averaging under $10 per gigabyte. Easy USB connectivity saw pendrives eclipse floppies and optical media to transfer content seamlessly between devices.

Digital Cameras Snapping With Flash

SD (secure digital) removable cards using NAND flash debuted just in time for a wave of digital cameras hitting shelves in early 2000s. Eliminating film while packing 64MB memory onboard, these gadgets made picture taking far more convenient for everyday users. As megapixel counts and display sizes ballooned through the decade, memory capacities raced to keep pace – hitting 2GB on SD cards by 2005 and 256GB by 2016!

Flash proved instrumental for cameras but barely scratched surface of its disruptive potential…

Fueling the Smartphone Boom…And Beyond!

When Apple unveiled the iPhone in 2007, its 8GB onboard storage enabled features that simply weren‘t feasible previously – effectively kicking off the smartphone era! Apps, video capture, email, web access and other functionality users take for granted relies crucially on storage that‘s economical yet spunky. But how exactly did iPhones pack a wallet-friendly $499 price tag? The answer is (yet again)…flash memory! Consider that:

  • 32GB NAND flash cost ~$32 per chip in 2007 vs over $300 for a 320GB laptop hard disk drive.

  • By 2019, this gulf widened with 32GB NAND at ~$3 per chip while HDD hovered around ~$40.

Beyond smartphones, flash has now conquered nearly all things computing – from industrial controllers to data center servers! Let‘s glimpse this remarkable growth.

YearTotal NAND Flash Shipments
1999~160M GB
2007~4.5B GB
2016~90B GB
2019~176B GB

Today SSDs have replaced HDDs in over 28% of PCs. Over 90% of smartphones and tablets rely on embedded NAND, up from 75% in 2015. This juggernaut marches on as devices demand even greater storage capacity along with blazing speed at minimal power. Keep scrolling to learn how flash changed shape (literally!) to raise the bar further.

Building Skyward With 3D NAND

Recall that transistors in conventional or 2D NAND flash lie on a planar substrate. As lithography shrank cells near physical limits in 2010s, manufacturers hit upon a creative stopgap – begin stacking cells atop each other! Samsung led way in 2013 with its punchily named V-NAND (standing for Vertical). This 3D revolution increased the storage density per chip substantially while accelerating read/writes too.

Let‘s examine how 3D stacking impacted raw capacity:

GenerationDie CapacityYear Released
2D Planar NAND64 GB2010
V-NAND Gen 1 (24 Layers)256 GB2013
V-NAND Gen 2 (32 Layers)512 GB2014
V-NAND Gen 6 (128 Layers)1 TB2019

Moreover, by shifting from floating to charged trap flash technology, 3D V-NAND enhanced endurance and data retention considerably – ensuring longevity of precious photos, videos and files. Micron, SK Hynix and Intel later followed suit with 96, 72 and 144 layer products respectively. This vertically stacked profusion allows affordable 1TB microSD cards for phones and 8TB SSDs to delight PC enthusiasts!

The Future Beckons!

Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs famously predicted NAND would become "ubiquitous as paper" – a prophecy well on its way judging by proliferation of smart gadgets with storage that routines outstrips PCs. While newer technologies like Intel‘s Optane and MRAM may someday supplement NAND/NOR, limitations around yield and scaling imply flash still has kilometers left on its marathon.

As 5G and WiFi 6 uncork device bandwidth, flash too must ratchet speeds and feeds. PCIe 4.0 SSD interfaces now deliver 7GBps transfers while doubling capacity to 16TB. Server-side SSDs are transitioning from 2.5-inch drives to ruler-shaped form factors packing 40TB NAND onboard! And if forecasts of forty billion connected IoT edge devices materialize, each will likely carry onboard flash adding up to an unimaginable data deluge.

Four decades since Masuoka‘s modest prototype, flash now forms the very edifice upholding technology‘s bleeding edge momentum into the 21st century and beyond. Not bad for a concept kicked off by a humble materials scientist scribbling on paper who simply wanted computers to remember!

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