Memory controller

Last updated

The memory controller is a digital circuit that manages the flow of data going to and from the computer's main memory. A memory controller can be a separate chip or integrated into another chip, such as being placed on the same die or as an integral part of a microprocessor; in the latter case, it is usually called an integrated memory controller (IMC). A memory controller is sometimes also called a memory chip controller (MCC) [1] or a memory controller unit (MCU). [2]


A common form of memory controller is the memory management unit (MMU) which in many operating systems, such as Unix, implements virtual addressing.


Most modern desktop or workstation microprocessors use an integrated memory controller (IMC), including microprocessors from Intel, AMD, and those built around the ARM architecture.

Prior to K8 (circa 2003), AMD microprocessors had a memory controller implemented on their motherboard's northbridge. In K8 and later, AMD employed an integrated memory controller. [3] Likewise, until Nehalem (circa 2008), Intel microprocessors used memory controllers implemented on the motherboard's northbridge. Nehalem and later switched to an integrated memory controller. [4]

Other examples of microprocessors that use integrated memory controllers include IBM's POWER5, and Sun Microsystems's UltraSPARC T1.

While an integrated memory controller has the potential to increase the system's performance, such as by reducing memory latency, it locks the microprocessor to a specific type (or types) of memory, forcing a redesign in order to support newer memory technologies. When DDR2 SDRAM was introduced, AMD released new Athlon 64 CPUs. These new models, with a DDR2 controller, use a different physical socket (known as Socket AM2), so that they will only fit in motherboards designed for the new type of RAM. When the memory controller is not on-die, the same CPU may be installed on a new motherboard, with an updated northbridge.

Some microprocessors in the 1990s, such as the DEC Alpha 21066 and HP PA-7300LC, had integrated memory controllers; however, rather than for performance gains, this was implemented to reduce the cost of systems by eliminating the need for an external memory controller.

Some CPUs are designed to have their memory controllers as dedicated external components that are not part of the chipset. An example is IBM POWER8, which uses external Centaur chips that are mounted onto DIMM modules and act as memory buffers, L4 cache chips, and as the actual memory controllers. The first version of the Centaur chip used DDR3 memory but an updated version was later released which can use DDR4. [5]


Memory controllers contain the logic necessary to read and write to DRAM, and to "refresh" the DRAM. Without constant refreshes, DRAM will lose the data written to it as the capacitors leak their charge within a fraction of a second (not more than 64 milliseconds according to JEDEC standards).

Reading and writing to DRAM is performed by selecting the row and column data addresses of the DRAM as the inputs to the multiplexer circuit, where the demultiplexer on the DRAM uses the converted inputs to select the correct memory location and return the data, which is then passed back through a multiplexer to consolidate the data in order to reduce the required bus width for the operation.

Bus width is the number of parallel lines available to communicate with the memory cell. Memory controllers' bus widths range from 8-bit in earlier systems, to 512-bit in more complicated systems and video cards (typically implemented as four 64-bit simultaneous memory controllers operating in parallel, though some are designed to operate in "gang mode" where two 64-bit memory controllers can be used to access a 128-bit memory device).

Some memory controllers, such as the one integrated into PowerQUICC II processors, include error detection and correction hardware. [6]


A few experimental memory controllers (mostly aimed at the server market where data protection is legally required) contain a second level of address translation, in addition to the first level of address translation performed by the CPU's memory management unit. [7]

Memory controllers integrated into certain Intel Core processors also provide memory scrambling as a feature that turns user data written to the main memory into pseudo-random patterns. [8] [9]

Memory Scrambling (in Cryptographic Theory) is supposed to prevent forensic and reverse-engineering analysis based on DRAM data remanence by effectively rendering various types of cold boot attacks ineffective. In current practice this has not been achieved.

However Memory Scrambling has only been designed to address DRAM-related electrical problems. The late 2010s Memory Scrambling Standards do not fix or prevent security issues or problems. The 2010s Memory Scrambling standards are not cryptographically secure, or necessarily open sourced or open to public revision or analysis. [10]

ASUS and Intel have their own memory scrambling standards. Currently ASUS motherboards have allowed the user to choose which memory scrambling standards to use [ASUS or Intel] or whether to turn the feature off entirely.


Double data rate memory

Double data rate (DDR) memory controllers are used to drive DDR SDRAM, where data is transferred on both rising and falling edges of the system's memory clock. DDR memory controllers are significantly more complicated when compared to single data rate controllers [ citation needed ], but they allow for twice the data to be transferred without increasing the memory cell's clock rate or bus width.

Multichannel memory

Multichannel memory memory controllers are memory controllers where the DRAM devices are separated on to multiple different buses to allow the memory controller(s) to access them in parallel. This increases the theoretical amount of bandwidth of the bus by a factor of the number of channels. While a channel for every DRAM cell would be the ideal solution, adding more channels is very difficult due to wire count, line capacitance, and the need for parallel access lines to have identical lengths.

Fully buffered memory

Fully buffered memory systems place a memory buffer device on every memory module (called an FB-DIMM when Fully Buffered RAM is used), which unlike traditional memory controller devices, use a serial data link to the memory controller instead of the parallel link used in previous RAM designs. This decreases the number of the wires necessary to place the memory devices on a motherboard (allowing for a smaller number of layers to be used, meaning more memory devices can be placed on a single board), at the expense of increasing latency (the time necessary to access a memory location). This increase is due to the time required to convert the parallel information read from the DRAM cell to the serial format used by the FB-DIMM controller, and back to a parallel form in the memory controller on the motherboard.

In theory, the FB-DIMM's memory buffer device could be built to access any DRAM cells, allowing for memory cell agnostic memory controller design, but this has not been demonstrated, as the technology is in its infancy.

Flash memory controller

Many flash memory devices, such as USB memory sticks, include a flash memory controller on chip. Flash memory is inherently slower to access than RAM and often becomes unusable after a few million write cycles, which generally makes it unsuitable for RAM applications.

See also

Related Research Articles

Synchronous dynamic random-access memory Type of computer memory

Synchronous dynamic random-access memory is any DRAM where the operation of its external pin interface is coordinated by an externally supplied clock signal.


A DIMM or dual in-line memory module, commonly called a RAM stick, comprises a series of dynamic random-access memory integrated circuits. These modules are mounted on a printed circuit board and designed for use in personal computers, workstations, printers, and servers. DIMMs began to replace SIMMs as the predominant type of memory module as Intel P5-based Pentium processors began to gain market share.

Rambus DRAM (RDRAM), and its successors Concurrent Rambus DRAM (CRDRAM) and Direct Rambus DRAM (DRDRAM), are types of synchronous dynamic random-access memory (SDRAM) developed by Rambus from the 1990s through to the early-2000s. The third-generation of Rambus DRAM, DRDRAM was replaced by XDR DRAM. Rambus DRAM was developed for high-bandwidth applications, and was positioned by Rambus as replacement for various types of contemporary memories, such as SDRAM.

HyperTransport (HT), formerly known as Lightning Data Transport (LDT), is a technology for interconnection of computer processors. It is a bidirectional serial/parallel high-bandwidth, low-latency point-to-point link that was introduced on April 2, 2001. The HyperTransport Consortium is in charge of promoting and developing HyperTransport technology.

Front-side bus

A front-side bus (FSB) is a computer communication interface (bus) that was often used in Intel-chip-based computers during the 1990s and 2000s. The EV6 bus served the same function for competing AMD CPUs. Both typically carry data between the central processing unit (CPU) and a memory controller hub, known as the northbridge.

Chipset Set of electronic components in an integrated circuit

In a computer system, a chipset is a set of electronic components in an integrated circuit known as a "Data Flow Management System" that manages the data flow between the processor, memory and peripherals. It is usually found on the motherboard. Chipsets are usually designed to work with a specific family of microprocessors. Because it controls communications between the processor and external devices, the chipset plays a crucial role in determining system performance.

Northbridge (computing) One of the two chips in the core logic chipset architecture on a PC motherboard

A northbridge or host bridge is one of the two chips in the core logic chipset architecture on a PC motherboard, the other being the southbridge. Unlike the southbridge, the northbridge is connected directly to the CPU via the front-side bus (FSB) and is thus responsible for tasks that require the highest performance. The northbridge, also known as Memory Controller Hub, is usually paired with a southbridge. In systems where they are included, these two chips manage communications between the CPU and other parts of the motherboard, and constitute the core logic chipset of the PC motherboard.

Southbridge (computing) One of the two chips in the core logic chipset architecture on a PC motherboard

The southbridge is one of the two chips in the core logic chipset on a personal computer (PC) motherboard, the other being the northbridge. The southbridge typically implements the slower capabilities of the motherboard in a northbridge/southbridge chipset computer architecture. In systems with Intel chipsets, the southbridge is named I/O Controller Hub (ICH), while AMD has named its southbridge Fusion Controller Hub (FCH) since the introduction of its Fusion AMD Accelerated Processing Unit (APU) while moving the functions of the Northbridge onto the CPU die, hence making it similar in function to the Platform hub controller.

In the fields of digital electronics and computer hardware, multi-channel memory architecture is a technology that increases the data transfer rate between the DRAM memory and the memory controller by adding more channels of communication between them. Theoretically, this multiplies the data rate by exactly the number of channels present. Dual-channel memory employs two channels. The technique goes back as far as the 1960s having been used in IBM System/360 Model 91 and in CDC 6600.

Registered memory

Registeredmemory modules have a register between the DRAM modules and the system's memory controller. They place less electrical load on the memory controller and allow single systems to remain stable with more memory modules than they would have otherwise. When compared with registered memory, conventional memory is usually referred to as unbuffered memory or unregistered memory. When manufactured as a dual in-line memory module (DIMM), a registered memory module is called an RDIMM, while unregistered memory is called UDIMM or simply DIMM.

In computing, serial presence detect (SPD) is a standardized way to automatically access information about a memory module. Earlier 72-pin SIMMs included five pins that provided five bits of parallel presence detect (PPD) data, but the 168-pin DIMM standard changed to a serial presence detect to encode much more information.

Double Data Rate 3 Synchronous Dynamic Random-Access Memory is a type of synchronous dynamic random-access memory (SDRAM) with a high bandwidth interface, and has been in use since 2007. It is the higher-speed successor to DDR and DDR2 and predecessor to DDR4 synchronous dynamic random-access memory (SDRAM) chips. DDR3 SDRAM is neither forward nor backward compatible with any earlier type of random-access memory (RAM) because of different signaling voltages, timings, and other factors.

Fully Buffered DIMM

Fully Buffered DIMM is a memory technology that can be used to increase reliability and density of memory systems. Unlike the parallel bus architecture of traditional DRAMs, an FB-DIMM has a serial interface between the memory controller and the advanced memory buffer (AMB). Conventionally, data lines from the memory controller have to be connected to data lines in every DRAM module, i.e. via multidrop buses. As the memory width increases together with the access speed, the signal degrades at the interface between the bus and the device. This limits the speed and memory density, so FB-DIMMs take a different approach to solve the problem.

ECC memory Self-correcting computer data storage

Error correction code memory is a type of computer data storage that uses an error correction code (ECC) to detect and correct n-bit data corruption which occurs in memory. ECC memory is used in most computers where data corruption cannot be tolerated under any circumstances, like industrial control applications, critical databases, and infrastructural memory caches.

Nehalem (microarchitecture)

Nehalem is the codename for Intel's 45 nm microarchitecture released in November 2008. It was used in the first-generation of the Intel Core i5 and i7 processors, and succeeds the older Core microarchitecture used on Core 2 processors. The term "Nehalem" comes from the Nehalem River.

The AMD 700 chipset series is a set of chipsets designed by ATI for AMD Phenom processors to be sold under the AMD brand. Several members were launched in the end of 2007 and the first half of 2008, others launched throughout the rest of 2008.

The Socket G3 Memory Extender (G3MX) was a planned Advanced Micro Devices' solution to the problem of connecting large amounts of memory to a single microprocessor. The G3MX was expected to be available on AMD 800S series chipset for server market starting from 2009, but was officially cancelled together with the cancellation of Socket G3 in early 2008.

Bloomfield (microprocessor) Code name for Intel high-end desktop processors sold as Core i7-9xx and Xeon 35xx., replacing the earlier Yorkfield processors

Bloomfield is the code name for Intel high-end desktop processors sold as Core i7-9xx and single-processor servers sold as Xeon 35xx., in almost identical configurations, replacing the earlier Yorkfield processors. The Bloomfield core is closely related to the dual-processor Gainestown, which has the same CPUID value of 0106Ax and which uses the same socket. Bloomfield uses a different socket than the later Lynnfield and Clarksfield processors based on the same 45 nm Nehalem microarchitecture, even though some of these share the same Intel Core i7 brand.

Apollo VP3 is a x86 based Socket 7 chipset which was manufactured by VIA Technologies and was launched in 1997. On its time Apollo VP3 was a high performance, cost effective, and energy efficient chipset. It offered AGP support for Socket 7 processors which was not supported at that moment by Intel, SiS and ALi chipsets. In November 1997 FIC released motherboard PA-2012, which uses Apollo VP3 and has AGP bus. This was the first Socket 7 motherboard supporting AGP.

Double Data Rate 5 Synchronous Dynamic Random-Access Memory is a type of synchronous dynamic random-access memory. Compared to its predecessor DDR4 SDRAM, DDR5 is planned to reduce power consumption, while doubling bandwidth. The standard, originally targeted for 2018, was released on 14 July 2020.


  1. Comptia A+ Certification Exam Guide, Seventh Edition, by Mike Meyers, in the glossary, bottom of page 1278: "Chip that handles memory requests from the CPU."
  2. Neat, Adam G. (2003-12-04). Maximizing Performance and Scalability with IBM WebSphere. ISBN   9781590591307 . Retrieved 6 February 2015.
  3. Vries, Hans de. "Chip Architect: AMD's Next Generation Micro Processor's Architecture". Retrieved 2018-03-17.
  4. Torres, Gabriel (2008-08-26). "Inside Intel Nehalem Microarchitecture". Hardware Secrets. p. 2. Retrieved 7 September 2017.
  5. Prickett Morgan, Timothy (2016-10-17). "IBM Brings DDR4 Memory To Bear On Power Systems". IT Jungle. p. 1. Retrieved 2017-09-07.
  6. "Memory Controller"
  7. This is a security feature in that it allows the Operating System to provide better protection separate from using a bit to deny arbitrary code execution in (System and/or User) RAM memory areas. John Carter, Wilson Hsieh, Leigh Stoller, Mark Swansony, Lixin Zhang, et al. "Impulse: Building a Smarter Memory Controller".
  8. "2nd Generation Intel Core Processor Family Desktop, Intel Pentium Processor Family Desktop, and Intel Celeron Processor Family Desktop" (PDF). June 2013. p. 23. Retrieved 2015-11-03.
  9. "2nd Generation Intel Core Processor Family Mobile and Intel Celeron Processor Family Mobile" (PDF). September 2012. p. 24. Retrieved 2015-11-03.
  10. Igor Skochinsky (2014-03-12). "Secret of Intel Management Engine". SlideShare. pp. 26–29. Retrieved 2014-07-13.