IBM in memory computing with 1 million phase change memory devices is 200 times faster than regular computing

“In-memory computing” or “computational memory” is an emerging concept that uses the physical properties of memory devices for both storing and processing information. This is counter to current von Neumann systems and devices, such as standard desktop computers, laptops and even cellphones, which shuttle data back and forth between memory and the computing unit, thus making them slower and less energy efficient.

Today, IBM Research is announcing that its scientists have demonstrated that an unsupervised machine-learning algorithm, running on one million phase change memory (PCM) devices, successfully found temporal correlations in unknown data streams. When compared to state-of-the-art classical computers, this prototype technology is expected to yield 200x improvements in both speed and energy efficiency, making it highly suitable for enabling ultra-dense, low-power, and massively-parallel computing systems for applications in AI.

Above – The researchers used PCM devices made from a germanium antimony telluride alloy, which is stacked and sandwiched between two electrodes.

The researchers used PCM devices made from a germanium antimony telluride alloy, which is stacked and sandwiched between two electrodes. When the scientists apply a tiny electric current to the material, they heat it, which alters its state from amorphous (with a disordered atomic arrangement) to crystalline (with an ordered atomic configuration). The IBM researchers have used the crystallization dynamics to perform computation in place.

“This is an important step forward in our research of the physics of AI, which explores new hardware materials, devices and architectures,” says Dr. Evangelos Eleftheriou, an IBM Fellow and co-author of the paper. “As the CMOS scaling laws break down because of technological limits, a radical departure from the processor-memory dichotomy is needed to circumvent the limitations of today’s computers. Given the simplicity, high speed and low energy of our in-memory computing approach, it’s remarkable that our results are so similar to our benchmark classical approach run on a von Neumann computer.”

To demonstrate the technology, the authors chose two time-based examples and compared their results with traditional machine-learning methods such as k-means clustering:

( Simulated Data: one million binary (0 or 1) random processes organized on a 2D grid based on a 1000 x 1000 pixel, black and white, profile drawing of famed British mathematician Alan Turing. The IBM scientists then made the pixels blink on and off with the same rate, but the black pixels turned on and off in a weakly correlated manner. This means that when a black pixel blinks, there is a slightly higher probability that another black pixel will also blink. The random processes were assigned to a million PCM devices, and a simple learning algorithm was implemented. With each blink, the PCM array learned, and the PCM devices corresponding to the correlated processes went to a high conductance state. In this way, the conductance map of the PCM devices recreates the drawing of Alan Turing.

* Real-World Data: actual rainfall data, collected over a period of six months from 270 weather stations across the USA in one hour intervals. If rained within the hour, it was labelled “1” and if it didn’t “0”. Classical k-means clustering and the in-memory computing approach agreed on the classification of 245 out of the 270 weather stations. In-memory computing classified 12 stations as uncorrelated that had been marked correlated by the k-means clustering approach. Similarly, the in-memory computing approach classified 13 stations as correlated that had been marked uncorrelated by k-means clustering.

“Memory has so far been viewed as a place where we merely store information. But in this work, we conclusively show how we can exploit the physics of these memory devices to also perform a rather high-level computational primitive. The result of the computation is also stored in the memory devices, and in this sense the concept is loosely inspired by how the brain computes.” said Dr. Abu Sebastian, exploratory memory and cognitive technologies scientist, IBM Research and lead author of the paper.

Nature Communications – Temporal correlation detection using computational phase-change memory


Conventional computers based on the von Neumann architecture perform computation by repeatedly transferring data between their physically separated processing and memory units. As computation becomes increasingly data centric and the scalability limits in terms of performance and power are being reached, alternative computing paradigms with collocated computation and storage are actively being sought. A fascinating such approach is that of computational memory where the physics of nanoscale memory devices are used to perform certain computational tasks within the memory unit in a non-von Neumann manner. We present an experimental demonstration using one million phase change memory devices organized to perform a high-level computational primitive by exploiting the crystallization dynamics. Its result is imprinted in the conductance states of the memory devices. The results of using such a computational memory for processing real-world data sets show that this co-existence of computation and storage at the nanometer scale could enable ultra-dense, low-power, and massively-parallel computing systems.

This system has two POWER8 CPUs (each comprising 10 cores) and 4 Nvidia Tesla P100 graphical processing units (attached using the NVLink interface). A detailed profiling of the GPU implementation reveals two key insights. Firstly, we find that the fraction of time computing the momentum M(k) is around 2%2% of the total execution time. Secondly, we observe that the performance is ultimately limited by the memory bandwidth of the GPU device. We then proceed to estimate the time that would be needed to perform the same task using a computational memory module: we determine the time required to compute the momentum on the memory controller, as well as the additional time required to perform the in-memory part of the computation. We conclude that by using such a computational memory module, one could accelerate the task of correlation detection by a factor of 200 relative to an implementation that uses 4 state-of-the-art GPU devices. We have also performed power profiling of the GPU implementation, and conclude that the computational memory module would provide a significant improvement in energy consumption of two orders of magnitude.

An alternative approach to using PCM devices will be to design an application-specific chip where the accumulative behavior of PCM is emulated using complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technology using adders and registers.

However, even at a relatively large 90 nm technology node, the areal footprint of the computational phase change memory is much smaller than that of CMOS-only approaches, even though the dynamic power consumption is comparable. By scaling the devices to smaller dimensions and by using shorter write pulses, these gains are expected to increase several fold35,36. The ultra-fast crystallization dynamics and non-volatility ensure a multi-time scale operating window ranging from a few tens of nanoseconds to years. These attributes are particularly attractive for slow processes, where the leakage of CMOS would dominate the dynamic power because of the low utilization rate.

They performed a large-scale experimental demonstration of this concept using a million PCM devices, and could successfully detect weakly correlated processes in artificially generated stochastic input data. This experiment demonstrates the efficacy of this concept even in the presence of device variability and other non-ideal behavior. They also successfully processed real-world data sets from weather stations in the United States and obtained classification results similar to the k-means clustering algorithm. A detailed comparative study with respect to state-of-the-art von Neumann computing systems showed that computational memory could lead to orders of magnitude improvements in time/energy-to-solution compared to conventional computing systems.

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