Originally Published: Friday, 16 June 2000 Author: Brian Richardson
Published to: enhance_articles_hardware/Hardware Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

FLASH! Can You Dig It?

Linux and flash memory have the potential to become best buddies in the emerging "thin client" and "webpad" markets. The true importance of flash isn't the technology itself, but the types of computers that can be designed by using flash instead of traditional mass storage devices.

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I've noticed the term "flash" showing up in more headlines the past few months. Linux and flash memory have the potential to become best buddies in the emerging "thin client" and "webpad" markets. The true importance of flash isn't the technology itself, but the types of computers that can be designed by using flash instead of traditional mass storage devices. So we'll talk about flash today, right after this musical interlude:

What's that technology that's driving my digital camera machine? FLASH! Damn right... What's that chip playing like it's IDE on my i-opener? FLASH! Can you dig it... What's that chip keepin' Metallica MP3s on your Rio? FLASH! Right on... Flash will run embedded Linux and Microsoft... SHUT YOUR MOUTH! I'm just talkin' 'bout Flash! THEN TUX CAN DIG IT! It's complicated silicon but you might wanna understand it! IT'S FLASH!

The market for flash memory technology is growing like weeds in a horse pasture. Flash memory is non-volatile memory. Its contents are persistent even if power is removed. It's slower to write to than volatile RAM, so it's not necessarily a replacement for system memory. But it's a good fit for mass storage and other areas where ROM has been used.

Unlike PROM or EPROM, flash does not require an external programmer. In fact, flash can be reprogrammed on the system. Some flash requires a higher voltage when in programming, while newer flash parts use the same voltage for read and write operations. The inner composition of a flash device works in a similar manner to a CD-RW media, except flash is reprogrammed in blocks, where a CD-RW is generally programmed all at once. Some flash parts have blocks of varying sizes (asymmetrical) while others, like Intel's new Firmware Hub devices, have all blocks the same size (symmetrical).

In the past, computers only used flash chips for the BIOS. Reprogramming (i.e. "flashing") a system BIOS using software is now a common practice, and certain areas of a PC's FLASH ROM are reserved for Plug'n'Play to write configuration data (ESCD, or Extended System Configuration Data). Flash sizes started at 64-128KB in the 90's, and 128KB flash is still commonly used for BIOS ROM in Taiwanese-made motherboards. But many PC systems currently utilize 256KB to 2 MB of flash for system BIOS and firmware.

Flash has always been an important part of the "pocket device" market. Palm computers, mini-notebooks, MP3 players, cell phones, pagers and scores of other personal data devices live off of flash technology. Unlike hard drives, flash has no moving parts to be affected by shock and vibration. The next big use of flash in the PC market is a larger capacity replacement for the hard disk drive, especially in "webpad" style devices. M-Systems and others are producing "disk-on-chip" technology -- 32-128MB flash devices that look like standard ATAPI/IDE storage. The Netpliance i-opener uses one of these chips.

Linux has a good opportunity to make inroads in this market segment. It is easily customizable to a small footprint, supports tons of networking protocols, and adds no cost to the platform. When the first Transmeta-based "webpads" come out on the market, don't be surprised if it's running embedded Linux out of on-board flash. Of course, QNX and other "embedded" operating systems are already have a solid foothold in the embedded world, but the popularity and public awareness of Linux may help, along with its attractive price.

Brian Richardson apologizes to Isaac Hayes for butchering the theme from Shaft. Then again, this is a man who sang a song about spherical salted chocolate snacks...





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