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Definition: memory


Temporary storage. The computer's workspace. Increasingly however, the term memory also refers to permanent "non-volatile" storage and not the original meaning. The "flash memory" chips used in memory cards, USB and SSD drives caused this terminology mix-up because they use the term "memory." However, they are permanent storage, not temporary. See storage vs. memory.

The Original Definition
Starting in the 1960s, memory was the computer's temporary workspace, and for the past several decades that means dynamic RAM (DRAM) chips. A major resource in the computer, memory (RAM) determines the size and number of programs that can be run at the same time, as well as the amount of data that can be processed quickly.

To always be clear when communicating, avoid using the term memory, and instead use "RAM" for temporary memory and "storage" for permanent memory. RAM capacity in today's computing devices ranges approximately from 4GB to 32GB (gigabytes). Storage capacities are from 32GB to several terabytes (TB). See dynamic RAM, USB drive, memory card and flash memory.

It All Takes Place in Memory
All program execution and data processing takes place in memory, often called "main memory." The program's instructions are copied into memory from storage or the network and then extracted into the CPU's control unit circuit for analysis and execution. The instructions direct the computer or mobile device to input, process and output data.

Calculate, Compare and Copy
As data are entered into memory, the previous contents of that space are lost. Only in memory can data be processed (calculated, compared and copied). The results are copied from memory to a screen, printer, storage device or the network. See 3 C's.

Memory Is an Electronic Checkerboard
Think of a checkerboard with each square holding one byte of data or instruction. Each square (each byte) has a separate address like a post office box that can be manipulated independently. As a result, the computer can break apart programs into instructions for execution and data records into fields for processing. See byte addressable, early memory and RAM.



A Checkerboard of Bytes
Once in memory (RAM), the contents of any single byte or group of bytes can be calculated, compared and copied independently. This is how fields are put together to form records and broken apart when read back in. In storage (hard drive, solid state drive, USB drive, etc.), data reside in sectors that are typically 4,096 bytes long and are the smallest unit that can be read from or written to the drive.



Computer Memory Does Not Remember

If memory is temporary and cannot "remember" anything, why call it memory? Because the first memory did "remember," but today's RAM chips do not. However, there are memory chips for special purposes that do hold their content, but they are not used as the main memory in computers, phones and tablets. See non-volatile memory.

What we think of as "remembering" memory in a computer are the hard drives and solid state drives (SSDs). See storage vs. memory.

Memory Can Get Clobbered!
Memory is an important resource that should not be wasted. It is allocated by the operating system as well as by applications and then released when no longer needed. Errant programs can grab memory and not let go, which results in less memory available to other programs. In addition, areas in memory that keep track of things can become corrupted because of bugs in software. Restarting the computer gives memory a clean slate, which is why rebooting the computer clears up so many problems with applications.

In addition, if the operating system has bugs, a malfunctioning application can write into the same memory used by another program, causing unspecified behavior such as the system locking up. If one were able to look into and watch how fast data and instructions are written into and out of memory in the course of a single second, it would become obvious that it is a miracle it works at all.

Other terms for the computer's main memory are RAM, primary storage and read/write memory. Earlier terms were core and core storage. See dynamic RAM, static RAM, core storage and memory module.