The Need for Speed
One common question about desktop computers that comes up all the time is, "Why does a computer need so many memory systems?" A typical computer has: Why so many? The answer to this question can teach you a lot about memory!

Fast, powerful CPUs need quick and easy access to large amounts of data in order to maximize their performance. If the CPU cannot get to the data it needs, it literally stops and waits for it. Modern CPUs running at speeds of about 1 gigahertz can consume massive amounts of data -- potentially billions of bytes per second. The problem that computer designers face is that memory that can keep up with a 1-gigahertz CPU is extremely expensive -- much more expensive than anyone can afford in large quantities.

Computer designers have solved the cost problem by "tiering" memory -- using expensive memory in small quantities and then backing it up with larger quantities of less expensive memory.

The cheapest form of read/write memory in wide use today is the hard disk. Hard disks provide large quantities of inexpensive, permanent storage. You can buy hard disk space for pennies per megabyte, but it can take a good bit of time (approaching a second) to read a megabyte off a hard disk. Because storage space on a hard disk is so cheap and plentiful, it forms the final stage of a CPUs memory hierarchy, called virtual memory.

The next level of the hierarchy is RAM. We discuss RAM in detail in How RAM Works, but several points about RAM are important here.

The bit size of a CPU tells you how many bytes of information it can access from RAM at the same time. For example, a 16-bit CPU can process 2 bytes at a time (1 byte = 8 bits, so 16 bits = 2 bytes), and a 64-bit CPU can process 8 bytes at a time.

Megahertz (MHz) is a measure of a CPU's processing speed, or clock cycle, in millions per second. So, a 32-bit 800-MHz Pentium III can potentially process 4 bytes simultaneously, 800 million times per second (possibly more based on pipelining)! The goal of the memory system is to meet those requirements.

A computer's system RAM alone is not fast enough to match the speed of the CPU. That is why you need a cache (see the next section). However, the faster RAM is, the better. Most chips today operate with a cycle rate of 50 to 70 nanoseconds. The read/write speed is typically a function of the type of RAM used, such as DRAM, SDRAM, RAMBUS. We will talk about these various types of memory later.

System RAM speed is controlled by bus width and bus speed. Bus width refers to the number of bits that can be sent to the CPU simultaneously, and bus speed refers to the number of times a group of bits can be sent each second. A bus cycle occurs every time data travels from memory to the CPU. For example, a 100-MHz 32-bit bus is theoretically capable of sending 4 bytes (32 bits divided by 8 = 4 bytes) of data to the CPU 100 million times per second, while a 66-MHz 16-bit bus can send 2 bytes of data 66 million times per second. If you do the math, you'll find that simply changing the bus width from 16 bits to 32 bits and the speed from 66 MHz to 100 MHz in our example allows for three times as much data (400 million bytes versus 132 million bytes) to pass through to the CPU every second.

In reality, RAM doesn't usually operate at optimum speed. Latency changes the equation radically. Latency refers to the number of clock cycles needed to read a bit of information. For example, RAM rated at 100 MHz is capable of sending a bit in 0.00000001 seconds, but may take 0.00000005 seconds to start the read process for the first bit. To compensate for latency, CPUs uses a special technique called burst mode.

Burst mode depends on the expectation that data requested by the CPU will be stored in sequential memory cells. The memory controller anticipates that whatever the CPU is working on will continue to come from this same series of memory addresses, so it reads several consecutive bits of data together. This means that only the first bit is subject to the full effect of latency; reading successive bits takes significantly less time. The rated burst mode of memory is normally expressed as four numbers separated by dashes. The first number tells you the number of clock cycles needed to begin a read operation; the second, third and fourth numbers tell you how many cycles are needed to read each consecutive bit in the row, also known as the wordline. For example: 5-1-1-1 tells you that it takes five cycles to read the first bit and one cycle for each bit after that. Obviously, the lower these numbers are, the better the performance of the memory.

Burst mode is often used in conjunction with pipelining, another means of minimizing the effects of latency. Pipelining organizes data retrieval into a sort of assembly-line process. The memory controller simultaneously reads one or more words from memory, sends the current word or words to the CPU and writes one or more words to memory cells. Used together, burst mode and pipelining can dramatically reduce the lag caused by latency.

So why wouldn't you buy the fastest, widest memory you can get? The speed and width of the memory's bus should match the system's bus. You can use memory designed to work at 100 MHz in a 66-MHz system, but it will run at the 66-MHz speed of the bus so there is no advantage, and 32-bit memory won't fit on a 16-bit bus.