Dell defends controversial CAMM

The proprietary CAMM card, which Dell has begun using as random access memory (RAM) in its laptops, is the source of much controversy among market watchers.

The introduction of the RAM format into the PC market is always a concern for corporate IT teams, as they have to juggle different types of modules to upgrade terminals. And rumors that Dell was implementing a special memory standard sparked comments. On specialized information sites and social media. But Dell memory isn’t really proprietary and can have benefits for high-end laptops and workstations. Controversy erupted last week when images of Dell’s Compression Integrated Memory Module (CAMM) memory card were released.

This immediately led to specialist sites announcing that the Texas supplier was taking sides to block upgrade options and install their own extra RAM prices. However, in an interview with PCWorld, the person who designed and patented the CAMM standard, as well as the product manager of the first Dell Precision laptop to showcase it, assured us that the goal of this memory standard was to avoid bandwidth limitations in current SoDIMM designs. Indeed, they added, Dell’s CAMM system can boost performance, improve reliability, make it easier for users to upgrade, and ultimately reduce costs.

One of the principles of the PC industry is standardization, said Tom Schnell of Dell, the lead engineer who designed much of the CAMM system. “We believe in it; we build standards in our products. We don’t keep them to ourselves, and we hope they will become the next industry standard.” Mr. Schnell explained that Texas does not manufacture the modules and that it has worked with Intel as well as other semiconductor suppliers on this subject. In the future, anyone with a CAMM-equipped laptop will be able to purchase RAM from a third party and install it on their computer. Yes, initially Dell will likely be the only supplier where CAMM upgrades can be obtained, but that should change as the standard grows and is adopted by other PC manufacturers. These memory modules are also made using DRAM core components, just like regular SoDIMMs.

In fact, Dell states that it did not start directly with this particular format. The first micro-workstations equipped with CAMMs will also be offered with traditional SoDIMMs using a switch. The overlap option is also in the same CAMM segment, said Manu Gialousis, product manager for micro-workstations. However, most internet posts have reacted last week that CAMM is proprietary, which is generally seen as a way to force people to buy upgrades from one company. However, Dell officials insist that this is not the case at all.

The Dell SoDIMM switch can be used on Precision workstations for those who still want to buy laptops with SoDIMM instead of the company’s CAMM standard. (Dell credit)

With CAMM now a reality, Dell’s next step is to move it to JEDEC, the memory standards body, to make it available to others, he said. But why not create a benchmark from scratch? According to Schnell, it is much easier to adopt a standard once it has proven itself rather than trying to create something new each time.

What about Dell patents?

The Texas supplier holds patents for the CAMM design and there will be royalties, but the company says it’s too early to discuss. She also points out that when building a laptop, so many PC companies hold patents that most end up being cross-border. A final note from Dell that should allay any concerns: Jedec itself requires that all standards it adopts meet RAND (reasonable and non-discretionary) requirements. This means that a standard cannot be adopted by Jedec if the license is not anti-competitive, its price is reasonable and it does not discriminate against the company.

This is the back of the 32GB CAMM card, the gold part is where the module plugs into the connector on the motherboard. (Dell credit)

Why is CAMM necessary?

According to Dell’s Schnell, SoDIMMs, or small, striped dual inline memory modules, are poised to hit a glass ceiling within one design generation. SoDIMMs, which were introduced nearly 25 years ago, haven’t evolved much at that time except for the move to newer, faster DRAMs.

Most SoDIMM problems stem from its relatively complex design, which lengthens the wires or traces that must connect the CPU to the RAM module. In the illustration below, you can see the path the wires take to go from the CPU to the quad SoDIMM architecture, top left. This distance is greatly reduced using the Dell CAMM design, bottom right. As we know, the shorter the distance the wire has to travel, the less power is required and the higher the potential speeds. With CAMM, the distance to the CPU can be 1.5 inches, compared to 3 inches for a SoDIMM design.

Une illustration tirée d’un brevet déposé par Dell en 2020 montre le chemin alambiqué qu’empruntent les traces de mémoire pour aller de l’unité centrale dans un SoDIMM (en haut à gauche) par rapport au nouveau CAMMté de la ene on the right). (Dell credit)

RAM is built using parallel interfaces, which means that multiple threads leave the CPU to go into memory. Due to the high demands on timing and signal integrity, this also means that each wire must be exactly the same length and spaced enough apart to reduce interference. According to Schnell, for most applications SoDIMM hasn’t reached its limits yet, but by the time DDR6 arrives, SoDIMM design will be off its limits. In fact, we are already seeing CAMM in action today. In a 12th generation Intel laptop that uses two SoDIMMs, for example, one can achieve DDR5/4800 transfer speeds (MT/s or Megatransfers per second). One MT/s is equivalent to one million data units per second. But with a quad-DIMM design, as in a laptop with 128GB of RAM, transfer speeds drop back to DDR5/4000.

However, with CAMM, the density can reach 128 GB and achieve DDR5/4800 transfer speeds. Schnell does not go into details on the performance of CAMM versus SoDIMM, but notes that in general, a compression slot like the one Dell uses in a card can reach Its graphics, called DGFF, clock in at 20GHz, more than four times the transfer hours of speeds for a DDR5/4800 unit.

Dell says the CAMM design can increase performance and reliability, and even make upgrades easier. (del)

CAMM is smaller, more reliable and less hot

In addition to the performance advantage, Schnell said CAMM technology will improve reliability, thermal characteristics, and space consumption, which will allow for thinner laptops to be manufactured. From the image above, it is clear that the SoDIMM design can be quite thick, especially when using four modules. Since four modules require four sets of rails that must all be the same length, many laptop manufacturers install them on either side of the motherboard. All is well until you want to access the RAM on the other side of the motherboard. For ordinary people, this means not only removing the bottom of the laptop, but also removing the motherboard. It’s certainly not impossible, but removing a laptop’s motherboard means removing delicate ribbon cables from the touchpad, keyboard, screen, and other components. And the more things you deal with, the more likely you are to break something.

When you have four physical DIMMs, you also greatly increase the chances of losing the unit. With CAMM, the compression design sandwiches the connector, giving it greater protection from the contacts of the SO-DIMM, which are more exposed to air. This improves reliability, Schnell said. Finally, the CAMM design can help dissipate more heat because the conductor can act as a heat sink. With SoDIMM, heat can be trapped between overlapping layers. Dell said it only thought this design was better, and to prove it, they included it in the Precision 7770 mobile workstation. According to Gialusis, the Precision 7770’s industrial customers claim performance and reliability, and the inclusion of CAMM in the line shows that Dell has confidence in this standard.

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