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SDRAM Memory Systems: Embedded Test & Measurement Challenges


DRAM (Dynamic Random Access Memory) is attractive to designers because it provides a broad range of performance and is used in a wide variety of memory system designs for computers and embedded systems. This DRAM memory primer provides an overview of DRAM concepts, presents potential future DRAM developments and offers an overview for memory design improvement through verification.

DRAM Trends

There is a continual demand for computer memories to be larger, faster, lower powered and physically smaller. These needs are the driving force in the advancement of DRAM technology. Mainstream DRAMs have evolved over the years through several technology enhancements, such as SDRAM (Synchronous DRAM), DDR (Double Data Rate) SDRAM, DDR2 SDRAM, DDR3 SDRAM, DDR4 SDRAM, LPDDR (Low Power DDR), GDDR2 (Graphics DDR2), GDDR3, GDDR4 and GDDR5. This evolution has also been driven by how computer memories are used on DIMMs (Dual Inline Memory Modules). DIMM implementations have expanded from unregistered DIMMs to include registered DIMMs and FB-DIMMs (Fully Buffered DIMMs).

Computer memories are not the only systems that continue to demand larger, faster, lower powered and physically smaller memories. Embedded systems applications have similar requirements and increasingly use DRAMs.

However, memory systems are implemented differently in computers versus embedded systems. Typically, computer memories are mounted on pluggable DIMMs that are easily installed in the computer during assembly. The computer user may upgrade the computer memory by adding or replacing the DIMMs after the computer has been purchased. As a result, memories used in computers require a high level of compatibility with current and future computers, as well as current and future memories used in conjunction with a DIMM.

There are two major areas of compatibility.

  • Memory needs to be compatible with a wide variety of memory controller hubs used by the computer manufacturers.
  • Memory needs to work when a mixture of different manufacturer’s memories is used in the same memory system of the computer.

Open memory standards are useful in helping to ensure memory compatibility.

On the other hand, embedded systems typically use a fixed memory configuration, meaning the user does not modify the memory system after purchasing the product. The embedded systems manufacturer then has total control over which memories from specific manufacturers are used in the embedded systems product. It is common to optimize an embedded system’s performance and cost by using one specific memory from one memory manufacturer. As a result, it is less important in embedded systems, as compared to computer systems, to have a high level of multivendor memory interoperability.

The JEDEC (Joint Electron Device Engineering Council) has helped the memory industry by creating memory specifications in the form of JEDEC standards. JEDEC is a non-profit organization with members from memory manufacturers, computer manufacturers, test equipment manufacturers, etc. The open JEDEC standards define the required specifications that are needed for manufacturers to implement memory products that are to be interoperable with other manufacturers’ memories and computer memory controller hubs. These standards cover physical characteristics, DIMM circuit board layouts, electrical signals, register definitions, functional operation, memory protocols, etc. Verifying and testing a memory conformance to the JEDEC specifications is a critical step to ensuring reliable and interoperable memory operation with other manufacturer’s products.

New DRAM designs are meeting computer and embedded systems memory requirements to be larger, faster, lower powered and physically smaller. As a result, the following DRAMs changes are occurring: memory size is increasing, the numbers of banks are increasing, the burst length is increasing, the supply voltage is decreasing, the logic voltage swings are decreasing, the clock rates are increasing, the data rates are increasing, memory channels implementations are going from a large number of parallel signals to a reduced number of high speed serial signals, the number of memory channels are increasing, the circuit board density is increasing, etc. These trends are causing designers to use new techniques and tools to design, verify and debug their memory systems.

As memory clock rates increase and logic voltage swings decrease, signal integrity has become more of an issue for reliable memory operation. As result, there are trends for new DRAM features to focus on improving signal integrity of the memory system. These features include dynamically controlled ODT (on-die termination), OCD (off-chip driver) calibration and Fully Buffered DIMMs with AMBs (Advanced Memory Buffers).


An advantage of DRAM over other types of memory is its ability to be implemented with fewer circuits per memory cell on the IC (integrated circuit). The DRAM’s memory cell is based on storing charge on a capacitor. A typical DRAM cell is built with one capacitor and one or three FET(s) (field-effect transistor). A typical SRAM (Static Random Access Memory) memory cell takes six FET devices, resulting in fewer memory cells per same size IC. SRAMs are simpler to use, easier to interface to and have faster data access times than DRAMs.

DRAMs core architecture consists of memory cells organized into a two-dimensional array of rows and columns (See Figure 1). To access a memory cell requires two steps. First, you address a specific row and then you address a specific column in the selected row. In other words, first an entire row is read internally in the DRAM IC and then the column address selects which column of the row is to be read or to be written to the DRAM IC I/O (Input/Output) pins.

DRAM memory cells organized into a two-dimensional array of rows and columns
Figure 1. DRAM memory cells organized into a two-dimensional array of rows and columns.

DRAM reads are destructive, meaning the data in the row of memory cells are destroyed in the read operation. Therefore, the row data need to be written back into the same row after the completion of a read or write operation on that row. This operation is called precharge and is the last operation on a row. It must be done before accessing a new row and is referred to as closing an open row.

Analysis of computer memory accesses show that reads of sequential memory addresses are the most common types of memory accesses. This is reasonable since reading computer instructions are typically more common than data read or writes. Also, most instruction reads are sequential in memory until an instruction branch or a jump to subroutine occurs.

A DRAM row is called a memory page and once the row is opened you can access multiple sequential or different column addresses in that row. This increases memory access speed and reduces memory latency by not having to resend the row address to the DRAM when accessing memory cells in the same memory page. As a result, the row address is the computer’s higher order address bits and the column address is the lower order address bits. Since the row and column addresses are sent at different times, the row address and the column address are multiplexed on the same DRAM pins in order to reduce package pin count, cost and size. Typically the size of the row address is larger than the column address because the power usage is related to the number of columns.

Early DRAMs had control signals such as RAS# (Row Address Select active low) and CAS# (Column Address Select active low) to select the row and column addressing operation being performed. Additional DRAM control signals include WE# (Write Enable active low) for selecting write or read operation, CS# (Chip Select active low) for selecting the DRAM and OE# (output enable active low). The early DRAMs had control signals that were asynchronous and had various timing specifications covering their sequence and time relationships to determine the DRAM operating mode.

The early DRAMs read cycle had four steps. First, RAS# goes low with a row address on the address bus. Secondly, CAS# goes low with a column address on the address bus. Third, OE# goes low and read data appears on DQ data pins. The time from the first step to the third step when data is available on DQ pins is called latency. The last step is RAS#, CAS# and OE# going high (inactive) and waiting for the internal precharge operation to complete restoration of the row data after the destructive read. The time from the first step to completion of the last step is the memory cycle time. Signal timing of the above signals is related to the sequence of edges and is asynchronous. There are no synchronous clock operations with these early DRAMs.

The DRAM memory cell needs to refresh to avoid losing its data contents. This requires refresh of the capacitor before it loses its charge. Refreshing memory is the responsibility of the memory controller and the refresh time specification varies with different DRAM memories. The memory controller performs a refresh by doing a RAS# only cycle with the row address. At the end of the RAS# only cycle is the precharge operation of restoring the row data that was address in the RAS# only cycle. Typically, the memory controller would have a row counter that would sequentially generate all row addresses that were needed by the RAS# only refresh cycles.

There are two refresh strategies (See Figure 2). The first strategy is for the memory controller to refresh all rows sequentially in a burst of refresh cycles and then return control of memory back to the processor for normal operation. The next burst of refresh operations occurs before reaching the maximum refresh time. The second refresh strategy is for the memory controller to interleave the refresh cycles with normal processor memory operations. This refresh method spreads out the refresh cycles over the maximum refresh time.

DRAM refresh implementations include distributed refresh and burst refresh
Figure 2. DRAM refresh implementations include distributed refresh and burst refresh.

Early DRAMs evolved and implemented the refresh counter on the DRAM IC to take care of sequentially generated row addresses. Internally to the DRAM IC, the refresh counter is an input to a multiplexer that controls the memory array row address. The other multiplexer input is from the row address from the external address input pins. This internal refresh counter eliminated the need for an external refresh counter circuit in the memory controller. Some of these DRAMs supported a CAS# before RAS# cycle to initiate a refresh cycle using the internally generated row address.


The DRAM’s asynchronous operation caused many design challenges when interfacing it to a synchronous processor.

SDRAM (Synchronous DRAM) was designed to synchronize the DRAM operation to the rest of the computer system and to eliminate defining all the different modes of memory operations based on the sequence of CE# (Chip Enable active low), RAS#, CAS# and WE# edge transitions.

SDRAM added a clock signal and the concept of memory commands. The type of memory command is determined by the state of CE#, RAS#, CAS# and WE# signals at the rising edge of the SDRAM clock. Data sheets describe the memory commands in table form based on the state of CE#, RAS#, CAS# and WE# signals.

For example, an Activate command sends a row address to the SDRAM to open a row (page) of memory. Next is a sequence of Deselect commands to satisfy timing requirements before sending the Read or Write command with the column address. Once the row (page) of memory is opened with an Activate command, several Read and Write commands can operate on the data in that row (page) of memory. A Precharge command is required to close the row before another row can open.


DDR (Double Data Rate) SDRAMs increased the memory data rate performance by increasing clock rates, bursting of data and transferring two data bits per clock cycle (See Table 1). DDR SDRAMs burst multiple memory locations in a single read or single write command. A read memory operation entails sending an Activate command followed by a Read command. The memory responds after its latency with a burst of two, four, or eight memory locations at a data rate of two memory locations per clock cycle. Therefore, four memory locations are read from or written to in two consecutive clock cycles.

DDR SDRAM data rates and clock speeds
Table 1. DDR SDRAM data rates and clock speeds.

DDR SDRAMs have multiple banks to provide multiple interleaved memory access, which increases memory bandwidth. A bank is one array of memory, two banks are two arrays of memory, four banks are four arrays of memory, etc (See Figure 3). Four banks require two bits for bank address (BA0 & BA1).

Multiple memory banks in a DDR SDRAM provide increased access flexibility and improved performance
Figure 3. Multiple memory banks in a DDR SDRAM provide increased access flexibility and improved performance.

For example, a DDR SDRAM with four banks operates in the following manner. First, an Activate command opens a row in the first bank. A second Activate command opens a row in the second bank. Now any combinations of Read or Write commands can be sent to either the first bank or the second bank with their open rows. When Read and Write operations on the bank are completed, a Precharge command closes the row and the bank is ready for an Activate command to open a new row.

Note that the power required by the DDR SDRAM is related to the number of banks with open rows. More open rows require more power and larger row sizes require more power. Therefore, for low power applications one should open only one row at a time in each bank and not have multiple banks each with open rows.

Interleaving consecutive memory words in consecutive memory banks is supported when the bank address bits are connected to the lower order address bits in the memory system. Consecutive memory words are in the same memory bank when the bank address bits are connected to the higher order address bits in the memory system.


DDR2 SDRAM has several improvements over DDR SDRAM. DDR2 SDRAM clock rates are higher, thus increasing the memory data rates (See Table 2). Signal integrity becomes more important for reliable memory operation as the clock rates increase. As clock rates increase, signal traces on the circuit boards become transmission lines and proper layout and termination at the end of the signal traces becomes more important.

DDR2 SDRAM data rates and clock speeds
Table 2. DDR2 SDRAM data rates and clock speeds.

Termination of the address, clock and command signals are somewhat straightforward because these signals are unidirectional and are terminated on the circuit boards. The data signals and data strobes are bidirectional. The memory controller hub drives them during a write operation and the DDR2 SDRAM drives them during a read operation. To add to the complexity, multiple DDR2 SDRAMs are connected to the same data signals and data strobes. These multiple DDR2 SDRAMs can be on the same DIMM and on different DIMMs in the memory system. As a result, the data and data strobe drivers and receivers are constantly changing depending upon the read/write operation and which DDR2 SDRAM is being accessed.

DDR2 SDRAM improves the signal integrity of data signals and data strobes by providing ODT (On-Die Termination), an ODT signal to enable the on-die termination and the ability to program the on-die termination values (75 ohms,150 ohms, etc.) with the DDR2 SDRAM extended mode register.

The on-die termination value and operation is controlled by the memory controller hub and are a function of a DDR2 SDRAM DIMM’s location and type of memory operation (reads or writes). ODT operation results in better signal integrity by creating a larger eye diagram for the data valid window with increased voltage margins, increased slew rates, reduced overshoot and reduced ISI (Inter-Symbol Interference).

DDR2 SDRAM reduces memory system power by operating at 1.8 volts, which is 72% of DDR SDRAM’s 2.5 volts. In some implementations, the number of columns in a row has been reduced, resulting in lower power when a row is activated for read or writes.

Another benefit of the lower operating voltages is the lower logic voltage swings. For the same slew rate, the reduced voltage swings increase logic transition speeds to support faster clock rates. In addition, the data strobe can be programmed to be a differential signal. Using differential data strobe signals reduces noise, crosstalk, dynamic power consumption and EMI (Electromagnet Interference) and increases noise margin. Differential or single-end data strobe operation is configured with the DDR2 SDRAM extended mode register.

A new feature introduced with DDR2 SDRAM is additive latency, which provides the memory controller hub the flexibility to send the Read and Write commands sooner after the Activate command. This optimizes memory throughput and is configured by programming the additional latency using the DDR2 SDRAM extended mode register.

DDR2 SDRAM improves data bandwidth of 1Gb and 2Gb DDR2 SDRAMs by using eight banks. The eight banks increase the flexibility of accessing large memory DDR2 SDRAMs by interleaving different memory bank operations. Also, for large memories, DDR2 SDRAM supports a burst length up to eight.

DDR2 SDRAM data sheets are over 100 pages and the above DDR2 SDRAM features are highlights of its key features. Refer to DDR2 SDRAM data sheets for their complete features and details of operation.


DDR3 SDRAM is a performance evolution and enhancement of SDRAM technology starting at 800 Mb/s, which is the highest data rate supported by most DDR2 SDRAMs. DDR3 SDRAMs support six levels of data rates and clock speeds (See Table 3). DDR3-800/1066/1333 SDRAMs became available in 2007, while DDR3-1600/1866 SDRAMs are expected in 2008 and DDR3-2133 SDRAMs in 2009.

DDR3 SDRAM data rates and clock speeds
Table 3. DDR3 SDRAM data rates and clock speeds.

DDR3-1066 SDRAM uses less power than DDR2-800 SDRAM because the DDR3 SDRAM operating voltage is 1.5 volts, which is 83% of DDR2 SDRAM’s 1.8 volts. Also, the DDR3 SDRAM data DQ drivers are at higher 34 ohms impedance than DDR2 SDRAM’s lower 18 ohms impedance.

DDR3 SDRAM will start with 512 Mb of memory and will grow to 8 Gb memory in the future. Just like DDR2 SDRAM, DDR3 SDRAM data output configurations include x4, x8 and x16. DDR3 SDRAM has eight banks where as DDR2 SDRAM has four or eight depending upon the memory size.

Both DDR2 and DDR3 SDRAMs have four mode registers. DDR2 defined the first two mode registers while the other two were reserved for future use. DDR3 uses all four mode registers. One significant difference is DDR2 mode registers defined CAS latency for read operation and the write latency was one less the mode register read latency setting. DDR3 mode registers have unique settings for both the CAS read latency and write latency.

DDR3 SDRAM uses 8n prefetch architecture which transfers 8 data words in 4 clock cycles. DDR2 SDRAM uses 4n prefetch architecture which transfers 4 data words in 2 clock cycles.

The DDR3 SDRAM mode registers are programmed to support the on the fly burst chop, which shortens the transfer of 8 data words to 4 data words by setting the address line 12 low during a read or write command. On the fly burst chop is similar in concept to the read and write auto-precharge function of the address line 10 in both DDR2 and DDR3 SDRAMs.

Other noteworthy DDR3 SDRAM attributes include the data strobes DQS which are differential, whereas DDR2 SDRAM data strobes could be programmed by the mode register to be single-ended or differential. DDR3 SDRAM also has a new pin which is the active low asynchronous RESET# pin, which will improve system stability by putting the SDRAM in a known state regardless of the current state. DDR3 SDRAM uses the same type of FBGA packages as DDR2 SDRAM.

DDR3 DIMMs have the terminations for the commands, clock and address on the DIMM. Memory systems using DDR2 DIMM terminate the commands, clock and address on the motherboard. The DDR3 DIMM terminations on the DIMM allow a fly-by topology where each command, clock and address pin on the SDRAM is connected to a single trace which is terminated at the trace end on the DIMM. This improves the signal integrity and results in faster operation than the DDR2 DIMM tree structure.

The fly-by topology introduces a new write leveling feature of DDR3 SDRAM for the memory controller to account for the timing skew between the clock CK and data strobes DQS during writes. The DDR3 DIMM is keyed differently than the DDR2 DIMM to prevent the wrong DIMM being plugged into the motherboard.


In September of 2012 JEDEC released preliminary standards for DDR4. DDR4 has significant increases in performance as well as improved reliability and reduced power compared to the last generation of DRAM technology. DDR4 will have double the speed and memory density, and will use 20% less power representing significant achievement relative to past DRAM technologies. DDR4 is able to achieve lower power consumption by dropping voltages from 1.5V as in DDR3 to 1.2V while increasing the performance factor to 2,133 MT/sec to start with future goals of 3,200 MT/sec.

One of the most significant changes is the proposed requirement to establish the reference voltage or V center used for compliance testing using a variable approach. For DDR3, this value was fixed at 750 mV. The new approach involves making multiple acquisitions of the DQ and a DQS Write burst. The largest to smallest voltage value for each is then measured and an average created using a simple formula. This then becomes the DQ voltage reference for centering and making reference measurements using an eye diagram.

Following the lead of many serial standards, DDR4 will now incorporate a statistical jitter measurement approach for speeds greater than 2,133. For speeds under 2,133, all jitter will be assumed to be deterministic jitter or DJ. For 2,133 and above, tests will look at both DJ and random jitter or RJ. To date, many of the timing parameters for jitter have not been published, but designers should be aware that jitter testing will be a requirement. One benefit of expanded jitter testing in DDR4 is that should devices fail to meet jitter requirements, the test and measurement vendor community offers robust jitter decomposition tools that can help isolate the source of problems.

DDR4 SDRAM data rates and clock speeds
Table 4. DDR4 SDRAM data rates and clock speeds.


Other DDR variations such as GDDR (Graphics DDR) and LPDDR (Low Power DDR) are increasingly gaining importance in the industry as well.

GDDR is a graphics card-specific memory technology and is currently specified with four variants: GDDR2, GDDR3, GDDR4 and GDDR5. GDDR has a very similar technological base as conventional DDR SDRAM's but differs in the power requirements. They have been reduced to allow for simplified cooling and higher performance memory modules. GDDR is also designed to better handle certain graphic requirements.

LPDDR uses 166 MHz clock speeds and is gaining popularity in portable consumer electronics where low power consumption is important. LPDDR2 improves power efficiency even further with operating voltages as low as 1.2V and clock speeds ranging from 100 to 533 MHz. LPDDR3 continues to improve upon power efficacy while increasing clock speeds to 800MHz. The standards for LPDDR4 were published in August of 2014 and represent the latest generation of LPDDR technology. LPDDR4 further improves upon the power efficiency of the previous generation by about 40% at 1.1V while doubling the clock rate of the previous generation to 1.6GHz.


Dual inline memory modules (DIMMs) are plug-in memory modules for computers.

DIMMs vary in physical size, memory data width, ranks, memory sizes, memory speeds and memory architectures.

JEDEC has defined DIMMs standards and continues to work on defining new DIMMs based on new memory types and memory architectures.

DIMM Physical Size

The standard DIMM size is used in desktops, workstations and servers. SO-DIMMs (Small Outline DIMMs) are small size DIMMs used in laptops and other space constant implementations. The Butterfly configuration refers to two SO-DIMMs parallel to the computer motherboard that have their edge connectors next to each other. Think of the two edge connectors as the butterfly body and the SO-DIMMs as the open butterfly wings. Mini-DIMMs (Miniature DIMMs) are smaller than SO-DIMMs and are used in single board computers. VLP-DIMMs (Very Low Profile DIMMs) are shorter in height and are used in blade servers.

DIMM Data Width

DIMM data width depends upon support for the ECC (Error Correction Code). ECC is eight check bits used for error detection and correction. The standard DIMM data width is 64 bits without ECC and 72 bits with the eight ECC bits.


A rank is a complete group of memory devices on a DIMM to support 64 data bits or 72 bits with ECC. A rank of two is two groups of memory devices on a DIMM. Rank of four is four groups of memory devices on a DIMM. Table 5 shows how many memory ICs are on a DIMM that supports a data width of 64 bits without ECC. At some point there is not enough room on both sides of the DIMM for all the memory ICs. To solve this problem, memory ICs are stacked on top of each other.

Number of memory ICs per DIMM without ECC based on ranks on the DIMM and number of data I/Os per memory IC
Table 5. Number of memory ICs per DIMM without ECC based on ranks on the DIMM and number of data I/Os per memory IC.

DIMM Memory Size & Speed

DIMM memory size depends on size of memory ICs used and DIMM configuration. A 512Mb (Meg bit) memory IC can be designed as different configurations (See Table 6). DIMM speed depends on the clock speed supported by the DDR, DDR2, DDR3, and DDR4 SDRAMs used on the DIMM.

Examples of different 512Mb (Meg bit) memory IC configurations
Table 6. Examples of different 512Mb (Meg bit) memory IC configurations.

DIMM Architecture

There are three major DIMM architectures: UDIMMs, RDIMMs and FB-DIMMs. Each DIMM architecture has advantages and limitations.

UDIMM is an unregistered DIMM. UDIMM has no buffering of the DDR, DDR2, DDR3, and DDR4 SDRAMs signals on the DIMM (See Figure 4). UDIMMs were the first implementation of DIMMs. For a single or dual DIMM memory system the UDIMMs are the fastest and lowest cost. The memory controller hub directly controls all the DRAM signals. No buffers or registers delay the signals between the memory controller hub and the SDRAM on the UDIMM. The number of UDIMMs that can be on a memory controller hub memory channel is limited by signal integrity. Signal integrity is decreased by the following factors: increased memory clock speed, increased trace lengths, increased number of UDIMMs on a memory channel, and increased number of ranks on a UDIMM. The memory controller hub sees every connector, every trace, every trace branch and every SDRAM pin. The impedance problems of the tree stub architecture limit the clock frequency and the number of UDIMMs that a memory channel can reliably operate.

UDIMM has no buffering of the DRAM signals on the DIMM
Figure 4. UDIMM has no buffering of the DRAM signals on the DIMM.

Memory controller hubs that have separate memory channels are one way to increase the number of UDIMMs in a memory system. Two separate memory channels can support two high speed UDIMMs with one UDIMM per memory channel.

RDIMM is a registered DIMM. RDIMM reduces some of the problems of the tree stub architecture by buffering the RDIMM SDRAMs clock, command signals and address signals on the RDIMM (See Figure 5). The clock signal is buffered with the Phase Lock Loop (PLL) and the command signals and addressing signals are buffered with register latches. A typical registered DIMM is implemented with a PLL IC and two ICs with registers. The memory controller hub clock, command signals and address signals see the impedances of the motherboard traces, DIMM connectors, RDIMM registers and RDIMM PLL. This reduced tree stub architecture allows for more RDIMMs to be used on a memory channel, making it faster. There is no buffering or reduced signal loading benefits for the bidirectional DQ data lines and DQS data strobe lines. Also, RDIMMs memory access times are one clock cycle slower than UDIMM because one clock cycle is required to latch the commands and address signals into the registers on a RDIMM.

RDIMM buffers DRAM clock, command signals and address signals on the DIMM
Figure 5. RDIMM buffers DRAM clock, command signals and address signals on the DIMM.

FB-DIMM is a fully buffered DIMM. FB-DIMM uses DDR2 SDRAMs and FB-DIMM2 uses DDR3 SDRAMs. All DDR2 SDRAMs and DDR3 SDRAMs signals are buffered from the memory system with the AMB (Advanced Memory Buffer) IC on the FB-DIMM and FB-DIMM2 (See Figure 6).

FB-DIMM buffers DDR2 SDRAM signals on the FB-DIMM
Figure 6. FB-DIMM buffers DDR2 SDRAM signals on the FB-DIMM.

Serial Presence

Detect The Serial Presence Detect (SPD) function is on all computer DIMMs and is used to provide DIMM memory configuration information such as memory size, speed, latency, timing, manufacturer, etc. to the computer’s BIOS during the computer’s power-on (See Table 7). At poweron, the BIOS (Basic Input Output Software) reads the configuration information of each DIMM using the SPD function. This information is then used to configure the memory controller hub and the DRAM mode and extended mode registers on each UDIMM and RDIMM. The SPD functions are specified by JEDEC standards. For UDIMMs and RDIMMs the SPD functions are implemented in a small nonvolatile memory IC with a slow speed I2C interface that is located on each DIMM. The motherboard has an I2C interface with a unique address (0 through 7) for each DIMM slot. At power-on, each DIMM slot is checked using the I2C interface. If a DIMM is present the SPD values are read by the BIOS.

The computer BIOS reads the DIMM configuration using the Serial Presence Detect (SPD) interface. The SPD data is specified by JEDEC standards
Table 7. The computer BIOS reads the DIMM configuration using the Serial Presence Detect (SPD) interface. The SPD data is specified by JEDEC standards.

For FB-DIMMs the SPD functions are implemented in the AMB, which has the I2C interface. The FB-DIMM I2C interface is called SMbus (System Management bus). The SMbus is used to configure the AMB in each FB-DIMM.

Memory System Design

The first few steps of product design are product requirements, product architecture design and subsystem design. One of the subsystem designs is the memory system.

Memory system design is dependent on memory size, speed, power, existing standards, new developing standards, reuse of existing designs and other requirements.

The computer chipset manufacturers heavily influence memory system designs for computers. Some of these computer chipset manufacturers have their own testing procedures, validation processes and workshops to test products. Typically, these computer chipset manufacturers’ web sites list memory products that passed their compatibility testing.

Design Simulation

A key part of memory system design is design simulation. The importance of comprehensive memory system design simulation cannot be understated. Experience has shown that a resistor value change of only a few ohms can have a significant impact on having a reliable operating memory system.

Memory system design simulation should include the effects of probing loading caused by measurement any instrument when it is connected to the prototype memory system. The verification and debugging process will be very difficult if the prototype stops operating because of probe loading. Also, simulation should analyze the signals at probe test points with an accounting of the signal impacts caused by the loading of the instrument probe. The data valid window will change along the signal trace from the memory controller hub driver to the SDRAM pins.

Probing test points should be as close as possible to the receiver pins so that the instrument shows the signal that the receiver is seeing. Sometimes this is not possible and BGA (Ball Grid Array) interposers, test adapter boards and other special probing fixtures and aids are used to retrieve difficult to access signals. The signal loss impact of these probing aids should also be included in design simulations to understand their effect on the SDRAM signals and the measurement of the signals.

Design Verification

Using new DRAM features in designs requires new design methods and techniques, which range from new techniques in design simulation to new BIOS operation. As a result, DRAM design implementations require complete verification and testing, ranging from circuit board construction to software operation to ensure reliable memory operation. Product reliability will suffer if a memory system has infrequent random errors because of a design implementation that has not been fully verified. In addition, the customer may require a product to satisfy various compliance testing requirements that have been defined by JEDEC or by other manufacturers.

Verification Strategy

It is important to have a strategy for effectively and quickly debugging design problems in any design implementation. Quick time-to-market product development requires verification/debugging planning early in the design. This plan should identify the following requirements:

  • What are new design elements and what are reused design elements.
  • What to avoid and change based on past designs.
  • What level of validation and testing is needed, does the testing require special operating modes or signal patterns.
  • What special design-in features are needed (e.g., probing test points or test fixtures), has simulation analysis accounted for probing the prototype, are signal stimuli needed, is special software needed to exercise the hardware.
  • What environmental tests are needed (e.g., temperature, humidity, etc.).
  • What circuit operational visibility do you have in order to debug it.
  • What regulatory compliance testing is required, will the validation/debug test points be used to test the product in manufacturing, will the validation/debug test points be used to repair the product in service, and how do you manage the risk of what you do not know today

For example, some verification strategies include building a validation prototype with numerous probing test points to verify the new system architecture with new ASICs/FPGAs. It is best that the validation prototype operates at full speed to verify at-speed operation and performance. Complex designs require more comprehensive visibility of their real-time operation in order to pin-point problems quickly. Once the validation prototype is running correctly and has completed validation, the final prototype is implemented with reduced test points.

SDRAM Verification

DRAM verification and testing techniques depend upon what is being designed. DRAM designs are grouped into the following types: computer memory controller hub ICs, memory ICs, AMB ICs, DIMMs, computer motherboards and embedded systems. Each of these products requires different validation strategies, different validation tests and different test equipment. For example, a memory IC designer will not be verifying circuit board construction whereas the DIMM designer will be verifying the DIMM circuit board construction.

The memory controller is typically designed by the embedded systems designer because of its unique requirements to work with a specific processor and unique embedded system input/output configuration. As a result, a significant part of the design work is designing the memory controller and designing the circuit board layout between the memory controller and the memory ICs. Verifying this part of the design is critical for reliable operation.

DRAM verification and testing techniques require a range of test and measurement equipment such as sampling oscilloscopes, mixed signal oscilloscopes, logic analyzers, probes, test fixtures, analysis software, compliance software, etc. (See Table 8). Test equipment needs to provide precise acquisition, complete system visibility of electrical signals and protocol layers and powerful analysis capabilities.

Verification tasks with associated test equipment
Table 8. Verification tasks with associated test equipment.

Unobtrusive probing has been proven as one of the greater challenges for memory designers. Increasing speeds, low power levels, decreasing geometries and a large number of pins require sophisticated probing solutions. Tektronix offers a complete range of solutions for the most sophisticated probing challenges. These include direct probing with minimum loading and a variety of probe tips that allow easy access to the test points; chip interposers or BGA (Ball Grid Array) Interposers that install between the memory IC and the circuit board. Instrumented DIMMS that are extended DIMMs designed per the JEDEC specification with additional connectors to the instrumentation; and DIMM Interposers that install between the memory DIMM and the circuit board.

Monitoring a computer system or embedded system with a logic analyzer creates a powerful verification and debugging development environment. The logic analyzer is used to trace and correlate the processor bus activity, the memory activity and the input/output operations. Complete system visibility on logic analyzer display provides critical design insight to real-time system operation. In addition, using integrated oscilloscope and logic analyzer probing, triggering and display provides complete design visibility from the software listing, the protocol listing, the digital waveforms and the analog waveforms on the same display. The result is a powerful, comprehensive and efficient analysis of the prototype.

Tektronix offers a comprehensive tool set including industry leading oscilloscopes, mixed signal oscilloscopes, true differential TDRs, BGA Interposers for memory socket probing, and logic analyzers with Nexus Technology memory supports to enable embedded and computer designers to perform quick and accurate electrical testing and operational validation of their memory designs. Collectively, this tool set provides superior performance with unparalleled ease-ofuse, making it an ideal solution for embedded systems and computer memory systems verification and debugging.