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The next Centrino platform to be released next year – codenamed Santa Rosa – will feature an integrated disk cache using flash memory in order to speed up disk access and also save energy – which is a must in extending battery life. In this IDF Fall 2006 we had a more detailed explanation on how this technology, codenamed Robson, will work. Let’s take a look.

First, why Intel is creating this technology? If you take a look at a typical disk access, the majority of the time is spent moving the mechanical parts of the disk rather than transferring data, as you can see on the example given in Figure 1.

Robson TechnologyFigure 1: The majority of the time is spent on mechanical latency rather than actually transferring data.

The second problem is that the CPU is way faster than the hard disk drive, causing a performance bottleneck on the system: when the CPU needs to read something from the hard disk drive, it has to wait until the data is delivered in order to manipulate it.

In the last 10 years the problem only got worse: while CPU performance increased 30x, hard disk drive performance increase only 1.3x.

Robson TechnologyFigure 2: Hard disk drive performance didn’t follow CPU performance increase in the past 10 years.

So what Intel is proposing with Robson technology is a cache solution using flash memory between the CPU and the hard disk drive. The idea is to make the CPU to access this flash memory as much as it can instead of going all the way to the hard disk drive, which, as we explained, slows down the CPU. So this flash memory will basically hold the most frequently accessed data in order to speed up disk access.

Intel showed us some preliminary performance data (see Figure 3), using a Photoshop workload. In their test using an 1 GB flash disk cache improved the hard disk drive transfer rate by 463%, making the time spent to run the workload to drop from 24.5 seconds to 12.4 seconds.

Robson TechnologyFigure 3: Performance impact of Robson technology.

It is not only that. As the hard disk drive will be less accessed, it will consume less power and thus produce less heat. Of course the more cache hits – i.e., the more the CPU accessed the cache instead of accessing the hard disk drive directly – the more power savings, as you can see in Figure 4.

Robson TechnologyFigure 4: Hard disk drive power savings with the use of Robson technology.

Robson technology also speeds up the notebook coming back from hibernating state. When you put your notebook to hibernate, what the system does is to save on hard disk drive the contents of the RAM memory. When you wake it up, the system transfers the contents of that file back to RAM, restoring all programs and data that your were working when you put your portable computer to sleep.

With Robson, this file is stored on flash memory rather than on the hard disk drive. So when you wake up your PC, it will come back faster as the transfer rate of the flash memory is far higher than the one provided by the hard disk drive.

Of course if you have more RAM memory than Robson memory your notebook will still need to the hard disk drive to store the remaining contents that didn’t fit the flash memory. Even when this occurs the difference in time will be quite visible.

Let’s now take a more in-depth look at how Robson technology will be implemented.

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Intel will deliver Robson technology on a mini PCI Express card, which will contain the flash memory chips and their controller, see Figure 5. The presentation was based on a 1 GB solution and the current memory controller used can handle up to 8 GB of NAND flash memory.

Robson TechnologyFigure 5: Robson disk cache card.

Intel will sell this card to notebook manufacturers already assembled or in the form of a kit to be assembled by the manufacturer. Another option for notebook manufacturers is to assemble Robson technology components on the notebook’s motherboard.

If you pay close attention in Figure 5 you will see that the flash memory chips used are from Intel, and according to them at least initially they won’t allow notebook manufacturers to implement Robson technology to be used with memory chips from other vendors.

A simple block diagram of Robson technology can be seen in Figure 6.

Robson TechnologyFigure 6: Robson technology architecture overview.

It is compatible with both ReadyBoost and ReadyDrive technologies that will be available on Windows Vista.

ReadyBoost (formerly known as EMD, External Memory Device) is a feature implemented on Windows Vista that allows users to use any piece of flash memory like memory cards and USB drives as a memory cache.

ReadyDrive, on the other hand, is the command set used by Windows Vista to handle non-volatile memories. This technology is also known as PITON or T13.