Remote Working Triggers Memory Demand for PCs, Smartphones

Article By : Gary Hilson

Workstations will demand more memory, but the the future all-purpose device may be a smartphone...

Are PCs again poised to drive memory demand? Or are 5G-enabled smartphones the go-to device for remoted workers? As more of us work from home, the last thing IT departments need are complaints about a lack of computing horsepower. The solution isn’t necessarily desktops or laptops with more RAM — it could be smartphones with a more gamified workspace experience in line with off-hours use. The desktop computer was the early adopter of DRAM, with high-end gaming PCs leading the charge. With data center growth, the move to cloud computing and the rise of hyper-scalers, servers tend to drive demand for the latest and greatest DDR specification and NAND flash SSDs. Emerging applications such as AI in the data center are consuming Graphical DDR (GDDR) DRAM that’s typically found in high performance desktops used for gaming and design. Meanwhile, the evolution of smartphones and tablets means desktop computers have grown less popular with mobile users. Many workers with office computers no longer feel the need to have one at home. With remote work looking to be a long-term proposition, PC purchases are climbing again; workers not only need one for the home office, but are also increasingly using them for education and gaming. Both IDC and Gartner reported strong PC demand in the second quarter of 2020. PC maker registered double-digit growth in the U.S. market compared to the same quarter a year ago—a volume not seen since 2009. IDC cited work-from-home and e-learning as key drivers of demand. Whether demand will hold up post-pandemic is an open question. Supply Chain Adjustments Gartner said the global PC market recovered at least for the short term during the second quarter, although some of it was due to distributors and retail channels restocking their supplies back to near-normal levels. It also cautioned that the uptick in mobile PC demand won’t continue beyond this year, driven as it was by the pandemic. Given the new challenges for IT departments, desktop vendors realize workstations must keep up with user expectations, whether those users work from home or return to the office. Dell recently introduced its Precision 3240 Compact, a workstation with a small footprint but sufficient performance to run enterprise applications along with virtual reality and AI simulations. The workstation comes with accelerated memory speeds of up to 2933 MHz with expansion capacity up to 64 GB and as much as 4 TB of SSD storage.
Lenovo is catering to remote workers with a slimmer and lighter ThinkPad laptop with performance needed for productivity applications (Source: Lenovo)
Lenovo, meanwhile, is catering to small and medium businesses. Its popular ThinkPad laptop has been upgraded with the X1 Nano, which is slimmer and lighter while still delivering the performance needed for productivity applications. Hewlett-Packard’s recent update to its Z portfolio is also aimed at performance, hardware expandability and versatility for remote work. Aside from needing enough memory and storage to keep up with productivity applications run locally on workstations, these platforms also need sufficient computing power to run a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). This enables remote workers to run office applications. Global Market Insights forecasts the VDI market will hit $30 billion by 2026, due in part to the extensive adoption of mobile devices for enterprise computing. Meanwhile, companies are also delivering a wide array of software and applications. The research firm predicts increased demand for personal configuration requirements of virtual desktop through “persistent” VDI instances. The hardware segment of VDI encompasses both the server and client sides, consisting of end-user computing devices such as desktop PCs, laptops and even smartphones. VDI or not, desktop PCs or laptops may not be necessary for remote work. According to Mark Bowker of Enterprise Strategy Group, remote workers and IT departments are warming to the idea of docking a smartphone to a monitor, mouse and keyboard to work remotely. “I use my smartphone to display a full windows desktop,” Bowker said. “If I was to go back into a corporate or office setting, I could use the same device,” requiring only an office monitor.
Mark Bowker
Smartphones are capable of serving as the only device needed for both personal and office use. The pandemic demonstrates that a smartphone could be the primary device for many business users. In response, Microsoft introduced dual-screen Surface Duo that combines Windows and Android applications. That indicates a shift toward smaller devices and web-based applications. Applications may be “skinnier,” Bowker added, but installed apps are still required. So, too, for the foreseeable future are security updates. Regardless, work machines will need sufficient memory to meet user expectations, said Bowker, and corporate environments will become more gamified in line with how users interact with devices during off-hours. As 5G is deployed, devices are going to need much local memory, even if the applications are run through the cloud. Next-generation wireless “is driving the ability to run a richer experience on devices,” Bowker noted. “That calls attention to the ability to have memory in place on the endpoint, not necessarily the laptop.” Indeed, smartphone makers are adding more DRAM and flash storage to improve user experience, handle large files locally and stream hi-resolution video. Memory performance also is geared to support multi-tasking, akin to workstations. Ahead of the Curve Memory vendors are ahead of the curve in terms of DRAM and flash for 5G-enabled phones. Earlier this year, for example, Micron Technology began sampling a universal flash storage (UFS) multichip package (uMCP) with low-power DDR5 (LPDDR5) DRAM technology. The packages are designed to fit in compact midrange smartphones, making them ready for 5G-based applications, including augmented and virtual reality. MCPs combine DRAM with NAND and an onboard controller—a common smartphone architecture that reduces power consumption and memory footprint, thereby enabling smaller devices. Elsewhere, Samsung’s 12-Gb LPDDR5 mobile DRAM introduced last year represents a major leap from LPDDR4X. Initially targeted at 5G handsets running AI applications, the uMCPs also can support PC-like multitasking.
MPCs use the UFS high-performance storage interface to provide low power consumption required in smartphones. (Source: Micron Technology)
“Premium smartphones enable more complex applications, and multitasking that requires better processor, storage and DRAM specs,” said Stephen Lum, senior product marketing manager for mobile and consumer memory at Samsung Semiconductor Inc. “LPDDR5 is the fastest and largest-capacity mobile memory to date, and we anticipate it will power next-generation premium smartphones.” Indeed, smartphones have been topping desktops and laptops in terms of DRAM for about two years at 10 gigabytes. Samsung has already seen a shift in memory demand from desktops to laptops to support remote workers. Current smartphones “have storage and DRAM densities comparable to laptops, so the ability to utilize a smartphone as a productivity device is only limited by the operating system and available applications,” said Lum. From a storage perspective, Samsung has already supplied UFS products for smartphones and tablets in densities as high as 1 TB. The amount enables mobile device manufacturers to provide storage comparable to laptops. Other vendors such as Kioxia (formerly Toshiba Memory Corp.) have developed UFS embedded flash memory devices using its 96-layer bit-cost scalable 3D flash memory. Those devices take advantage of a faster UFS interface and supports full duplexing. That allows simultaneous reading and writing between host processor and UFS device. Overall, smartphones now have the compute, memory and storage to become an all-purpose device. Still, analyst Bowker of Enterprise Strategy Group said demand for workstations will remains for graphics-heavy apps, fast CPU performance and optimized memory for use cases like engineering design and medical imagery. “That will never go away,” said Bowker.  

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