Embedded Systems/Memory Units


One type of memory that is as cheap as it is useless is Read-Only Memory (ROM). I say that it is useless because you can program it once, and then you can never change the data that is on it. This makes it useless because you can't upgrade the information on the ROM chip (be it program code or data), you can't fix it if there is an error, etc.... Because of this, they are usually called "Programmable Read-Only Memory" (PROM), because you can program it once, but then you can't change it at all.


In contrast to PROM is EPROM ("Erasable Programmable Read-Only Memory"). EPROM chips will have a little window, made of either glass or quartz that can be used to erase the memory on the chip. To erase an EPROM, the window needs to be uncovered (they usually have some sort of guard or cover), and the EPROM needs to be exposed to UV radiation to erase the memory, and allow it to be reprogrammed.


A step up from EPROM is EEPROM ("Electrically Erasable Programmable Read-Only Memory"). EEPROM can be erased by exposing it to an electrical charge. This means that EEPROM can be erased in circuit (as opposed to EPROM, which needs to be removed from the circuit, and exposed to UV). An appropriate electrical charge will erase the entire chip, so you can't erase just certain data items at a time.

Many modern micrcontroller have an EEPROM section on-booard, which can be used to permanently store system parameters or calibration values. These are often referred to as non-volatile memory (NVM). They can be accessed - read and write - as single bytes or blocks of bytes. Like Flash memory EEPROM allows only a limited number of write cycles, usually several ten-thousand.

Write access to on-board NVM tends to be considerably slower than RAM. Embedded software must take this into account and "queue" write requests to be executed in background.


Random Access Memory (RAM) is a temporary, volatile memory that requires a persistant electric current to maintain information. As such, a RAM chip will not store data when you turn the power OFF. RAM is more expensive than ROM, and it is often at a premium: Embedded systems can have many Kbytes of ROM (sometimes Megabytes or more), but often they have less than 100 bytes of RAM available for use in program flow.

FLASH MemoryEdit

Flash memory is a combination of the best parts of RAM and ROM. Like ROM, Flash memory can hold data when the power is turned off. Like RAM, Flash can be reprogrammed electrically, in whole or in part, at any time during program execution.

Flash memory modules are only good for a limited number of Read/Write cycles, which means that they can burn out if you use them too much, too often. As such, Flash memory is better used to store persistant data, and RAM should be used to store volatile data items.

Last modified on 22 May 2012, at 19:51