Microsoft to "encourage" use of ECC memory for Vista

  • Chicago (IL) - Microsoft confirmed to TG Daily that it will "encourage" system builders to use Error Checking and Correction (ECC) memory modules for Vista computers - rather than the standard DDR devices common in desktop and notebook computers today. Currently, ECC is mainly used in servers and workstations and will not be a Vista requirement, but the technology may increase the stability of the OS.

    Microsoft's next-generation Windows has still a few months and pre-releases to go before we will have a good idea what benefits and drawbacks the operating system will offer to users. But details trickling out of Redmond, already suggest that the transition from XP to Vista won't be as easy as from Me or 2000 to XP. Users intending to upgrade have to learn about VDDM (Vista Display Driver Model) drivers, make sure that there is enough CPU and GPU horsepower to run the software and be convinced that a wave of digital rights management (DRM) features isn't as scary in everyday use as on paper.

    We are certain that we will learn about more surprises as the months pass by and perhaps experience a Windows 95 upgrade deja-vu. Just now we heard from Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, analyst that Microsoft will make ECC memory a "soft-requirement" for Windows Vista. "Soft" means that system builders won't have to use the technology to achieve a "Vista ready" level, but Microsoft certainly may recommend to its partners to avoid the mainstream memory that is used in virtually all desktop and notebook computers today.

    "We've made a number of changes and improvements to the way Windows Vista diagnoses and manages memory that we think will lead to a better overall customer experience," Michael Burk, PR Manager for Microsoft's Windows team, told TG Daily. "In addition, we think that ECC would help bring added stability to system memory, and so we are encouraging our partners to consider incorporating ECC into their future product plans," he said.

    ECC devices integrate circuitry that can test and modify data as it passes through the memory. Unlike standard memory, the technology is able to detect and correct single-bit errors. This feature is especially valuable in server and workstation environments - and this is where ECC is used today in most cases. With single-bit memory errors being capable of shutting down a server that needs to be in operation around the clock, ECC is the obvious choice.

    Sub-quality emory is a "serious problem"

    While Microsoft is soft-paddling the ECC issue to the outside, the message to analysts appears to be different. According to Enderle, at least Jim Allchin, co-president of Microsoft's Platform Products & Services Division, believes that current mass market memory is a "serious problem". He told TG Daily that Microsoft confirmed that it has found out that a lot of "breakage" in Windows is caused by memory and that "the problem with memory has to be resolved before Vista ships."

    This "breakage" apparently is caused by sub-quality memory that does not meet general specifications and can crash software. "Memory touches virtually anything in a computer and therefore has a lot of impact," Enderle said. "If memory is the problem and ECC can fix it, then it is a no-brainer to move towards ECC."

    Today, ECC technology is very rare in desktop and notebook computers as the technology commands a higher price than their standard counterpart: For example, 1 GB ECC DDR-333 are priced 56% higher than non-ECC devices ($97 and $62, respectively), according to Pricewatch.com. The difference for 2 GB DDR-400 modules is 79%. In the DDR2 space, the premium climbs to more than 90% in most segments. ECC also has an impact on system performance as especially the ECC's RAM check consumes significant time when booting a computer. Overall, ECC memory is generally believed to be about 1% to 3% slower than memory modules without the extra circuitry.

    If the highest possible system stability is important, users and system builders will have to consider ECC memory. A direct effect of Microsoft's recommendation may be slightly higher system prices, at least as long as ECC does not hit the production level of a mainstream product. But the simple fact that ECC carries a premium price tag means that the technology certainly will not surface in entry-level computers and may also stay out of systems that are focused on performance, such as gaming computers. While added stability certainly will make sense in business computers, lacking ECC support in some chipsets may prevent some users to upgrade their system or even prevent system builders to offer certain computers with ECC memory. For example, SiS' chipsets 661 and 649 or Intel's 845, 865 and certain 915 chipset variants do not support ECC.

    The simple fact that Microsoft recommends ECC for Vista will increase demand for ECC memory. However, according to Enderle, memory manufacturers do not take Microsoft's shift towards ECC serious enough at this time to take the necessary steps for a production increase. "This could result in a big mess," Enderle said. "Microsoft is soft-paddling the issue, but should have started six months ago to inform its partners. Manufacturers could meet ECC demand, if they started to prepare their production now. I am just not sure, if they do that."

    While it is too early to forecast what will happen during the next months, it is very likely that consumer will pay an extra $30 to $50 to have their systems equipped with ECC memory - and likely even more if production does not meet demand. "A shortage in ECC will cause a spike in price when Vista launches," Enderle said. Users who plan to upgrade to Vista therefore should also dedicate some extra budget to a memory upgrade.

    If Microsoft's concern is especially sub-quality memory than, at least in theory, higher quality memory from manufacturers such as Corsair, Crucial or OCZ could be another option and a potentially cheaper memory solution than ECC. Burk was not able to confirm, if higher-quality memory will have the same effect as ECC. "We are still running tests and we are not recommending any technology or vendor over the other," he said.