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Computer Memory and How It Works


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All computers have memory. Without it, we would just have a device that does fixed operations and it would be more like a calculator. So what is computer memory and how does it work?

Technically, computer memory is any form of electronic storage. There are many types of memory within a computer, all varying in size due to cost. Because the hard drive is the most cost effective, it is the largest portion of our system, enabling us to have home PC's. The most expensive memory system within our computer is the cache.

To put memory into very simple terms, let's imagine that we are turning on our home PC. When your computer is turned on, the first thing your system does is load data from its ROM or read-only memory. ROM is a type of memory that is preloaded with data and software that never changes. ROM also stores your computer's initial start-up instructions.

Once your computer loads data from ROM, it then loads the operating system from the hard drive into the system's RAM or Random Access Memory. RAM can be read and written to at any time. Your computer's CPU (central processing unit) commands the RAM. The hard drive, operating system, and CPU all work as a team.

Once you open an application, it is loaded into RAM. To conserve RAM usage, many applications load only the essential parts of the program initially and then load other pieces as needed. When you save a file and close the application, the file is written to the specified storage device and then it and the application are purged from the RAM.

RAM serves as temporary storage, which holds information every time something is loaded or opened. Keeping it temporary allows the CPU to access it more easily. The CPU requests the data from RAM, processes it, and then writes new data back to RAM in a continuous cycle, often millions of times every second.

Another type of storage that is not accessible by the CPU is called secondary storage. The computer uses input/output channels to access secondary storage and stores information using an intermediate area in primary storage. Hard disks are usually used as secondary storage because of their affordability. The down side is that it takes a computer a few thousandths of a second or millisecond to access a byte of information stored on a hard drive. This sounds fast until you see that it takes RAM a thousand-millionth of a second or a nanosecond to transfer the same amount of information. This makes hard disks a million times slower than RAM.

Other secondary storage devices, such as CDs, DVDs, and flash memory, have an even longer access time than hard disks.

Because of the cost and speed, most computers will store information in the primary memory and then move the least used information to secondary storage devices, retrieving it later when it is needed. As more of these retrievals from slower secondary storage are needed, your system becomes slower.

Higher end computers, those used by specialty companies, often have systems with more RAM or sophisticated systems to help them maintain large amounts of data without overburdening their systems.

For most individuals or even companies, keeping up with the needed amount of memory can be daunting. Each year, the software we use and become dependent upon along with the applications we enjoy require more and more storage space. Transferring information from old computers to new can be expensive and for some large companies almost cost prohibitive. Using third party data storage companies in archiving your information helps your systems not get bogged down while safely retaining your information. And for many companies, storing critical accounting information using third party companies is the law.

What is the future for computer memory and storage? All we know is that it will only get bigger and bigger and that our computers as well as ourselves depend on it.

About the Author

Stephen J. Richards has 25 years experience in Data Management and Information Technology. This information is provided as a public service by Neon Enterprise Software, a leading provider of IMS outsourcing. For more information, please visit

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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2008-05-16 23:58:02 in Computer Articles

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