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*OPINION: Memory Class Storage is Permanently Changing Server Architectures

This opinion piece was written by Bill Gervasi, principal systems architect at Nantero, with HQ in Boston. Gervasi lives in OC. He has been working with memory devices and subsystems since 1Kb DRAM and EPROM were the leading edge of technology. He has been a JEDEC chairman since 1996 and responsible for key introductions including DDR SDRAM, the integrated Registering Clock Driver and RDIMM architecture, the formation of the JEDEC committee on SSDs, and actively involved in the definition of NVDIMM protocols. He is chairman of the JEDEC non-volatile memory committee.

The industry is preparing for another inflection point as non-volatile memories continue to move closer to the system memory controller. Initially on the I/O channel as SSDs then optimized as NVMes, subsequently they were inserted into the memory channel in the form of NVDIMMs which brought storage class memory to the architecture. The next logical transition is non-volatile memories with full DRAM capabilities, or memory class storage.


For decades, computer memory hierarchies have been designed around the limitations of DRAM. When power fails, massive amounts of data are lost permanently. As a result, systems have employed sophisticated methods to checkpoint essential data, adding noticeably to systems cost and complexity. Over time this checkpoint storage has moved closer to the CPU, from hard drives to SSDs and NVMes to storage class memory on the DRAM channel, but each transition still required massive data movement for this checkpointing which consumes significant system time and burns a phenomenal amount of power.

Finally, this is about to change. Memory class storage (MCS) is an emerging non-volatile technology poised to replace DRAM as the primary storage for applications and data. MCS has the speed of DRAM coupled with data persistence to retain all data in the case of power failure or other system glitches.

At first glance this change seems more evolutionary than revolutionary, however the changes in system architecture enabled by MCS enable new ways to envision server systems including the elimination of external storage. Fabric computing and artificial intelligence solutions can also achieve orders of magnitude improvement from a high performance persistent memory option.

NRAM also improves server applications by offering lower power, higher performance, lower cost, and a plan for device densities up to 16 times the DRAM roadmaps.

NVRAM: Memory Class Storage

What if DRAM could be replaced with a non-volatile (persistent) memory alternative? Since 1971, this was not a question taken very seriously. That is finally about to change.

A revolutionary new standard in development is the NVRAM device specification which enables a new class of non-volatile memories called Memory Class Storage (MCS). These devices operate as direct drop-in replacements for DRAM which implies that they must be fully deterministic. Every read or write command must be handled by an MCS device in essentially the same number of clocks that a DRAM would do the same operation. In order to achieve determinism, MCS devices must have no wear-out characteristics that would impact DRAM controller timing.

The DDR5 NVRAM specification in development in JEDEC is an annex to the DDR5 SDRAM specification. The DDR5 NVRAM specification documents the compatibility with DRAM, and also any additional features of these MCS devices, such as the ability to eliminate REFRESH commands, PRECHARGE commands, and to leave banks open indefinitely.

With DDR5 NVRAM, a DRAM replacement memory module can be constructed using any of the standard variations such as unbuffered (UDIMMs and SO-DIMMs), registered (RDIMMs), load reduced modules (LRDIMMs), or differential interface modules (DDIMMs). No sideband signals are required, therefore DDR5 NVRAM modules are plug and play in an unmodified DRAM channel.

Data Tiers, Performance vs Capacity

For decades computer architectures have relied on a tier of storage elements from processor registers to local scratch pads, from on-chip caches to separate caches. The memory channel has typically provided temporary storage for von Neumann style processors, and on a separate I/O channel were persistent storage devices such as hard drives or tape backups. Each of these tiers tended to be slower and have greater capacity than the tier above. Figure 1 is a common expression of this hierarchy.

Figure : Traditional Memory Hierarchy

This model has been consistent for so many decades that it is almost redundant to copy it here, except that it does serve as a reference point for the migration of non-volatile memory (NVM) into the hierarchy initially as solid state drives (SSDs) on standard I/O port like SATA or SCSI, then later to higher performance variations such as non-volatile memory express (NVMe), but it still remained outside the directly addressed space of the main processor as an I/O resource.


This tiered structure led to two fundamentally distinct methods for accessing data: direct byte-oriented access, and block oriented file access, each with its unique semantics for allocating and accessing, as well as vastly different performance profiles. Fundamentally, every time an access must go through the file access mechanism, it is significantly slowed by the overhead of context switching through the operating system. Figure 2 shows the distinction between these access mechanisms and some of the programmer functions that distinguish them.

Figure : Access Mechanisms for Data
The direct access tier is expected to be essentially instantaneous, therefore context switching is not needed even for a single byte transfer. A program reads or write a variable without suspending the task that is running and just keeps going.

On the other hand, using the file access side of the programmer interface requires the overhead of context switching, plus the long data access latencies of the slower media types. To justify the latency hit, block accesses are required.


Eliminating the context switch through the operating system is a key improvement offered by Memory Class Storage. When tasks can perform all required work without an OS escape, orders of magnitude improvements in performance are realized. A load/store access mechanism allows tasks to remain on the active queue and not be switched out. Any size access is enabled without penalties, and block transfers operate at the full speed of the bus with essentially no latency penalty.

Fear of Flying

The common mechanism to deal with system frailties is checkpointing where executing tasks periodically save the critical state of the process to non-volatile media before continuing processing. In this way, if the system crashes before the next checkpoint, the system can restore the machine to its state prior to the crash and reload the checkpointed data and resume processing from that point forward.

Traditionally, as stated previously, this checkpointing had to be to I/O bus based persistent storage, such as tape drives, hard drives. This required a context switch through the filesystem driver, long access latency, then a dump of the checkpoint data. Figure 3 is a graphic example of the interruption of flow caused by checkpointing.

Figure 3: Checkpointing During Application Flow

It’s worth noting that checkpointing burns a lot of power to achieve this enhanced data reliability. The checkpoint data is transferred through the memory controller from DRAM to the I/O channel, into the buffer device of the drive, and finally written to the non-volatile memory media.

Non-Volatile Memory Moves In

Non-volatile memory is moving closer to the memory controller, providing superior methods for data persistence. The DRAM bus initially only allowed DRAM on it, however many methods are deployed to abstract the DRAM bus to offer new functionality including various versions of data persistence. One key factor to consider is that the unmodified DRAM bus is fully deterministic: when a read or write command is issued, it is required that the bus respond in an exact number of clocks. No accommodation is made for a device that requires additional time to process a command. As a result, recent methods to add non-volatile memory to the DRAM channel have required some number of sideband signals not in the original DRAM bus definition.


NVDIMM-N Optane & 3DXpoint NVDIMM-P
Full DRAM performance
Requires battery or supercapacitor backup power
Half the total capacity of a DRAM only module
1-2 minutes for data backup and restore
Only sideband is SAVE_n which need not come from memory controller Two modes of operation: memory mode and direct
Neither mode runs at full DRAM speed
Data persistence only in slower direct mode
Proprietary protocol limits to Intel servers only
Much higher module capacity than DRAM
Memory mode requires separate DRAM module which does not increase total capacity Out of order protocol allows media independence
Inherently slower than DRAM protocol, requires re-ordering to exploit
Persistence options vary, may require battery or supercapacitor energy source
New open standard sidebands and protocol, requires new memory controller
High module capacity
No Intel commitment to support
Table 1: Persistent Memory Module Options
System performance for the storage class memory module types varies widely. Each of the persistent memory module types described in Table 1 has significant limitations when compared to DRAM, from reduced capacity to reduced performance, making none of today’s NVM solutions ideal. As a result, a majority of systems use these memories sparingly, mounting them as disk drives to partition them from the higher performance DRAM. As stated before, once a media is mounted as a drive, performance suffers significantly since all accesses must trap through the OS drivers.


Memory Class Storage avoids the pitfalls of current NVM module solutions by offering full DRAM performance. When a system can rely on consistent no-compromise performance throughout the memory subsystem, it no longer needs to mount that memory as a drive.

Checkpointing in the New Hierarchy

The storage class memory architectures, by nature of having slower performance than DRAM, are often mounted into the system as drives and accessed as a fast SSD. This allows for the same software to run as shown in Figure 3. Performance is faster than SSD since accesses are over the DRAM bus which operates faster than an I/O bus, however significant delays are still taken due to the need to trap out of running applications through the operating system file drivers, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure : Persistent Memory Aware Operating System Access Paths
The DAX direct access path permits applications to address persistent memory using load and store operations without escaping to the filesystem drivers. This requires that applications be rewritten to use this path, and large scale commitment to these rewrites is less likely when the persistent memory has lower performance than DRAM. Applications have to carefully partition data based on this asymmetrical performance characteristic to avoid major performance penalties.


Memory Class Storage overcomes this hesitance to port applications to direct access because MCS devices operate with full DRAM performance. The inherent persistence of MCS simplifies the partitioning of data in the application because all memory has the same high performance. The introduction of MCS into the memory channel, therefore, is a revolutionary improvement in systems architecture.

Figure : Phased Transition from Checkpointing to Disk to Eliminating Checkpointing

The greatest impact of deploying MCS modules is that, for the first time, high performance systems can be built without any storage at all. Since all data is inherently persistent and impervious to power failure, checkpointing can be completely eliminated. As shown in Figure 5, DAX mode provides a graceful way for applications to migrate from traditional checkpointing to disks to checkpointing to memory, and finally, direct access mechanisms that eliminate the need for checkpointing completely.

Without the need for checkpointing, clearly the need for external storage devices becomes optional.

Is MCS an Evolution or a Revolution?


While the migration of non-volatile memory into the DRAM channel is an evolutionary incremental step in line with decades of improvements and refinements, it is not possible to overstate the impact that NVRAM will have on systems architectures when it has the potential to disruptively change design choices that have been universal since 1971. Essentially every system architecture choice made through these decades since 1971 has been predicated on the volatile nature of the memory subsystem, i.e., understanding that the D in DRAM stands for “Dynamic”.

A non-volatile main memory subsystem changes server architecture in dramatic and permanent ways. Systems no longer need to use the I/O channel to perform application checkpointing, which includes avoiding performance delays caused by context switching to I/O drivers. For some systems, it will no longer be required to even have a storage subsystem as shown in Figure 6; if all data fits into main memory, there is no longer a need for external storage. In-memory computing combined with data persistence results in a high performance, high reliability, self-contained processing subsystem.

Figure 6: Comparing Servers with External Storage and Servers with MCS

NVRAM may also be combined with enhancements such as fabric buses like Compute Express Link (CXL) to provide persistent expansion of the system memory space where the Memory Class Storage nodes can reply to requests in a fully deterministic way. Putting system expansion in the memory domain instead of the I/O domain avoids the performance degradation caused by operating system overhead.

Artificial intelligence devices, including deep learning or hyperdimensional computing variants, can exploit NVRAM technology to allow back propagation of data into the internal cells without the need to provide access paths for checkpointing of intermediate data. This results in significantly higher density and higher performance AI solutions using NVRAM as they are able to escape the von Neumann bottlenecks and apply NVRAM as high performance embedded storage.


In summary, NVRAM technology redefines memory for server architectures. It is a natural replacement for DRAM, offering a compatible interface and much higher memory capacity in the coming generation. It may be integrated into new fabric and artificial intelligence devices to provide magnitudes of performance improvements.

Checkpointing critical data has been a requirement for all DRAM based systems for decades, however the intrinsic persistence of NVRAM enables new architectures that eliminate this power and performance vacuum – just leave the data where it belongs!

NVRAM offers higher performance, lower power, lower cost, and higher density than DRAM.

The persistent memory revolution is coming, and just in time.

About The Author

Deirdre Newman is a long-time journalist, who's covered OC startups for a few years.

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