Memory Access Overview

In order to understand the meaning of the various timings on RAM, we need to first look at how memory is accessed. This is still only part of the overall memory subsystem, but it is the portion that relates directly to the memory timings. We will cover the remaining portions of memory access in a moment. Ignoring how a memory request actually gets to the RAM modules, then, the pattern for a memory access is as follows.

First, the requested address arrives at the memory module. In a worst case scenario, the address is not contained in one of the currently active rows of memory (also called memory pages), so an active row is flushed out, the new row is requested, the row becomes active, and after a slight delay, the specific column in the row can be requested. There is another delay while the column is accessed, and then the data begins coming across the memory bus. The whole column is not sent across the bus immediately, but is sent in several bursts instead. The number of bursts used in transmitting the data is referred to as the burst length, and these bursts occur at the effective data rate - i.e. two bits per clock on DDR/DDR2 and one bit per clock for SDRAM.

That is a worst case scenario, but luckily, that is not the most common occurrence. Due to spatial locality - which says that if you access one piece of data at address X, you will likely also access the data at X+1, X-1, X+2, X-2, etc. - memory has what is called active rows/pages. These are rows that are stored currently in what amounts to a small cache on the memory chips - this is called a "sense amplifier" - and when a request arrives for data that is already stored in an active row, only the request for a specific column is needed. Row sizes are typically 1KB or 2KB on current DRAMs and column sizes vary according to several other factors such as device width and burst length.

A further explanation of the actual layout of memory is also important. We have talked about rows and columns being accessed, but there is still more to the overall structure. As we had mentioned, rows are also called memory pages, but pages are further grouped into memory banks. Banks of memory can be thought of as something like the set associativity of a cache - each bank can only have one active row at a time. If a second page within a memory bank is requested, the open page must be closed before the new page can be opened. In certain situations, if two different pages within the same bank are requested in rapid succession, additional delays can occur, as a page must remain active for a minimum amount of time. Increasing the number of banks reduces the chance of this happening, so generally speaking, having more banks can help to improve memory performance. There is also a trade off, however, as increasing the number of banks requires additional logic in the memory controller and other components related to the memory subsystem.

Keep this initial explanation of the RAM access pattern in mind when we talk about timings in a moment, but now we need to go back a step and refine our description of how memory is accessed.

Index Refining the Memory Access Description
Comments Locked


View All Comments

  • 666an666 - Thursday, May 14, 2009 - link

    Thanks for the details. Unfortunatelt, most sellers of RAM (and most brand packagings) fail to mention these measurement details. They only show obscure model numbers and "PC-3200" or whatever. They usually only offer the choice of various brands, not various CL values.
  • letter rip - Saturday, December 25, 2004 - link

    This is great reading. When's the next installment?
  • Herm0 - Wednesday, November 10, 2004 - link

    There are two things that sould improve greatly a DIMM performance, in addition to the well known timings things "2-2-2-6"... , but looking at DIMMs specs, are hard to know :

    - The number of internal Banks. When a DIMM use multiple banks, the DIMM is divided in pieces, each holding its own grid of data and the logic to access it. Going from one bank to another one have no penalty : the memory controller have to send the bank address on two physical DIMM pins (so that it can't be more than 4 banks in a DIMM) at each access. Having a 2/4 bank DIMM is really like having 2/4 DIMMs : while one bank is waiting for a delay to exhaust (a CAS latency, a RAS latency, a RAS precharge...), the memory controller can send an order or do r/w things on another one... Most manufacturer build 2 banks DIMMs (when they publish that information !), few of them do 4 banks DIMMs.

    - The wideness of their row. It's slow to access to the 1st data of a row (1: wait for tRP, Row Precharge, from the last operation, 2: send the new row address and wait tRCD, 3: Ras to Cas Delay, send the column address and wait tCL, Cas delay, read the 1st 64bit bloc of data), but it's fast to read from the activated row (Send the starting column and wait tCL, then read/write data, 1 or 2 per clock (SDRAM or DDRAM), of the pre-programmed length & order). In a ideal DIMM having only 1 row, the only penalty would be from the tCL one ! The more large is a row, the more data can be accessed before dealing with Row delays (Precharge, and Ras to Cas). The row size is nearly never published, and I don't know how to get the number from the detailed DIMM/DRAM specs...

    Looking at 1Gb DDR400 DIMM modules too as #19, a good one, theorically, seems to be a Kingston's DIMMs :
    - Timings = 2.5-3-3-7 (shouldn't last digit be 2.5+3+2 = 7.5 or 8 ?), most 1 Gb DIMMs are 3-3-3-8 or slowers.
    - Banks = 4, most of DIMMs, even high-end ones, are only 2 Banks.
    - Row size = ??? Unknown...

    Am I right, or do I have to re-do Ars Technica lessons ? :-)
  • Gioron - Thursday, September 30, 2004 - link

    In terms of buying 512M of fast memory of 1G of slow memory... here's what a quick look at prices for memory looked like (all corsair sticks and only from one vendor because I'm lazy and didn't want to complicate things):
    512M "Value" (CL2.5): $77
    512M "XMS" (CL2): $114
    512M "Xtra low" (2-2-2-5): $135
    1G "Value" kit (CL3, 2x512M):$158

    To me, it looks like the "Xtra low" is indeed not a good bang for the buck, with the 1G upgrade only $20 more. However, the "XMS" 512M might be a good price point if you don't want to go all the way to $158 but have more than $77. Going for insanely low latencies seems to be only worth it if you have plenty of cash to spare and are already at 1G or more. (Or else are optimizing for a single, small application that relies heavily on RAM timings, but I don't think you'll run into that too much in a desktop environment.)

    One thing that might be useful in later articles is a brief discussion on the tradeoffs between size and performenace in relation to swapping pages to disk. Not sure if that will fit in with the planned article content, however.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, September 29, 2004 - link

    ??? I didn't think I actually started with a *specific* type of RAM - although I suppose it does apply to SDRAM/DDR, it also applies to most other types of RAM at an abstract level. There are lots of abstractions, like the fact that a memory request actually puts the row address and column address on different pins - it doesn't just "arrive". I didn't want to get into really low-level details, but look more at the overall picture. The article was more about the timings and what each one means, but you have to have a somewhat broader understanding of how RAM is accessed before such detail as CAS and RAS can really be explained in a reasonable manner.
  • Lynx516 - Wednesday, September 29, 2004 - link

    Not much has changed fundementaly with SDRAM since the early days of ddR.

    I never actually said a burst was a column but infact a continous set of columns (unless interleaved).

    Ok I admit there arnt many books on processor design and latency however there are data sheets and articles that describe the basics. Once tyou have grasped the basics you can work it out using the data sheets e.t.c

    Probably a better place to start with this series would have been the memory heirarchy instead of starting with a specifc
    type of RAM
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, September 29, 2004 - link

    The idea here is to have an article on :) I like Ars Technica as much as the next guy, but there are lots of different ways of describing technology. Sometimes you just have to write a new article covering information available elsewhere, you know? How many text books are there on processor design and latency? Well, here's another article discussing memory. Also worth noting is that Ars hasn't updated their memory information since the days of SDRAM and DDR (late 2000), and things certainly have changed since then.

    I should clarify my last comment I made: the column width of DDR is not really 32 bytes or 64 bytes, but that seems to be how many memory companies now refer to it in *layman's* terms. This article is much more of a layman's approach. The deep EE stuff on how everything works is more than most people really want to know or understand (for better or for worse). A column can also be regarded as each piece of a burst, which is probably the correct terminology. We'll be looking at various implementations in the next article - hopefully stuff that you haven't read a lot about yet. :)
  • greendonuts3 - Tuesday, September 28, 2004 - link

    Meh. You kind of started in the middle of the topic and worked your way outward/backward/forward. As a general user, I found the wealth of info more confusing than helpful in understanding ram. Maybe you could focus just on timing issues, which seems to be your intent, and refer the reader to other articles (eg the Ars one mentioned above) for the basics?
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, September 28, 2004 - link

    The comparison with set associativity is not that bad, in my opinion. What you have to remember is that we would then be talking about a direct-mapped cache with a whopping four entries (one per sense amp/active row). I guess I didn't explain it too well, and it's not a perfect match, true.

    Regarding burst lengths, each burst is not a column of information, although perhaps it was on older RAM types. For instance, the burst length of DDR can be 4 or 8. Each burst transmits (in the case of single-channel configurations) 64 bits of data, or 8 bytes. The column size is not 8 bytes these days, however - it is either 32 bytes or 64 bytes on DDR. (Dual-channel would effectively double those values.)
  • ss284 - Tuesday, September 28, 2004 - link

    I wouldnt say that the article is that confusing, but there is much truth in the post above^^^.


Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now