In the electronics industry, the march of time brings with it a reduction in size. Our electronic devices, while getting faster, better and cheaper, also tend to get smaller. One of the main reasons for this is the storage medium for binary data gets smaller and more efficient. Many can recall the EPROM, which is about the size of your thumb. Today we walk around with SD cards that can hold an order of magnitude more data, which can fit on your thumb’s nail.
Naturally, we must ask ourselves where the limit lies. Just how small can memory storage get? How about a single atom! IBM along with a handful international scientists have managed to store two bits of information on two pairs of holmium atoms. Using a scanning tunneling microscope, they were able to write data to the atoms, which held the data for an extended period of time.
Holmium is a large atom, weighing in at a whopping 67 AMU. It’s a rare earth metal from the lanthanide series on the periodic table. Its electron configuration is such that many of the orbiting electrons are not paired. Recall from our article on the periodic table that paired electrons must have opposite spin, which has the unfortunate consequence of causing the individual magnetic fields to cancel. The fact that holmium has so many unpaired electrons makes it ideal for manipulation.
While you won’t be seeing atom-level memory on the next Raspberry Pi, it’s still neat to see what the future holds.
At the 33rd annual Chaos Communications Congress, [Antonio Barresi] and [Erik Bosman] presented not one, not two, but three (3!!) great hacks that were all based on exploiting memory de-duplication in virtual machines. If you’re interested in security, you should definitely watch the talk, embedded below. And grab the slides too. (PDF)
Memory de-duplication is the forbidden fruit for large VM setups — obviously dangerous but so tempting. Imagine that you’re hosting VMs and you notice that many of the machines have the same things in memory at the same time. Maybe we’re all watching the same cat videos. They can save on global memory across the machines by simply storing one copy of the cat video and pointing to the shared memory block from each of the machines that uses it. Notionally separate machines are sharing memory. What could go wrong?
Most data storage devices we currently use are, at their core, two-dimensional. Sure, a hard drive might have multiple platters, but the data storage takes place on a flat surface. Even an optical drive is effectively a single surface that holds data. At the City College of New York, they are experimenting with storing data in three dimensions using lab-grown diamonds and LASERs.
Usually, diamonds that have few flaws are more valuable. But in this application, the researchers exploit the flaws to store information. Optical memory that uses a volume instead of a surface isn’t exactly new. However, it is difficult to use these techniques in a way that is rewritable.
Diamonds are a crystalline structure of carbon atoms. Sometimes, though, a carbon atom is missing from the structure. That’s a vacancy. Another defect is when a nitrogen atom replaces a carbon atom. Sometimes a vacancy occurs next to a rogue nitrogen atom and that causes an NV (nitrogen vacancy) center.
Most video game manufacturers aren’t too keen on homebrew games, or people trying to get more utility out of a video game system than it was designed to have. While some effort is made to keep people from slapping a modchip on an Xbox or from running an emulator for a Playstation, it’s almost completely impossible to stop some of the hardware hacking that is common on older cartridge-based games. The only limit is usually the cost of an EPROM programmer, but [Robson] has that covered now with his Arduino-based SNES EPROM programmer.
Normally this type of hack involves finding any cartridge for the SNES at the lowest possible value, burning an EPROM with the game that you really want, and then swapping the new programmed memory with the one in the worthless cartridge. Even though most programmers are pricey, it’s actually not that difficult to write bits to this type of memory. [Robson] runs us through all of the steps to get an Arduino set up to program these types of memory, and then puts it all together into a Super Nintendo where it looks exactly like the real thing.
If you don’t have an SNES lying around, it’s possible to perform a similar end-around on a Sega Genesis as well. And, if you’re more youthful than those of us that grew up in the 16-bit era, there’s a pretty decent homebrew community that has sprung up around the Nintendo DS and 3DS, too.
Evolution is one clever fellow. Next time you’re strolling about outdoors, pick up a pine cone and take a look at the layout of the bract scales. You’ll find an unmistakable geometric structure. In fact, this same structure can be seen in the petals of a rose, the seeds of a sunflower and even the cochlea bone in your inner ear. Look closely enough, and you’ll find this spiraling structure everywhere. It’s based on a series of integers called the Fibonacci sequence. Leonardo Bonacci discovered the sequence while trying to figure out how many rabbits he could make starting with just two. It’s quite simple — add the right most integer to the previous one to get the next one in the sequence. Starting from zero, this would give you 0-1-1-2-3-5-8-13-21 and so on. If one was to look at this sequence in the form of geometric shapes, they can create square tiles whose sides are the length of the value in the sequence. If you connect the diagonal corners of these tiles with an infinite curve, you end up with the spiral that you saw in the pine cone and other natural objects.
So how did mother nature discover this geometric structure? Surely it does not know math. How then can it come up with intricate and sophisticated structures? It turns out that this Fibonacci spiral is the most efficient way of squeezing the most amount of stuff in the least amount of space. And if one takes natural selection seriously, this makes perfect sense. Eons of trial and error to make the most copies of itself has stumbled upon a mathematical principle that permeates life on earth.
The homo sapiens brain is the product of this same evolutionary process, and has been evolving for an estimated 7 million years. It would be foolish to think that this same type of efficiency natural selection has stumbled across would not be present in the current homo sapiens brain. I want to impress upon you this idea of efficiency. Natural selection discovered the Fibonacci sequence solely because it is the most efficient way to do a particular task. If the brain has a task of storing information, it is perfectly reasonable that millions of years of evolution has honed it so that it does this in the most efficient way possible as well. In this article, we shall explore this idea of efficiency in data storage, and leave you to ponder its applications in the computer sciences.
I was buying a new laptop the other day and had to make a choice between 4GB of memory and 8. I can remember how big a deal it was when a TRS-80 went from 4K (that’s .000004 GB, if you are counting) to 48K. Today just about all RAM (at least in PCs) is dynamic–it relies on tiny capacitors to hold a charge. The downside to that is that the RAM is unavailable sometimes while the capacitors get refreshed. The upside is you can inexpensively pack lots of bits into a small area. All of the common memory you plug into a PC motherboard–DDR, DDR2, SDRAM, RDRAM, and so on–are types of dynamic memory.
The other kind of common RAM you see is static. This is more or less an array of flip flops. They don’t require refreshing, but a static RAM cell is much larger than an equivalent bit of dynamic memory, so static memory is much less dense than dynamic. Static RAM lives in your PC, too, as cache memory where speed is important.
For now, at least, these two types of RAM technology dominate the market for fast random access read/write memory. Sure, there are a few new technologies that could gain wider usage. There’s also things like flash memory that are useful, but can’t displace regular RAM because of speed, durability, or complex write cycles. However, computers didn’t always use static and dynamic RAM. In fact, they are relatively newcomers to the scene. What did early computers use for fast read/write storage?
[Brek] needed to store 64 bits of data from his GPS to serve as a last-known-position function. This memory must be non-volatile, sticking around when the GPS and power are off. Solutions like using a backup battery or employing a $0.25 EEPROM chip were obviously too pedestrian. [Brek] wanted to store his 64 bits in style and that means hand-wired core memory.
OK, we’re pretty sure that the solution came first, and then [Brek] found a fitting problem that could be solved, but you gotta give him props for a project well executed and well documented.