There are two major forms of RAM. They are static RAM (SRAM) and dynamic RAM (DRAM). In static RAM, a bit of data is stored using the state of a flip-flop. This form of RAM is more expensive to produce, but is generally faster and requires less power than DRAM and, in modern computers, is often used as cache memory for the CPU. DRAM stores a bit of data using a transistor and capacitor pair, which together comprise a memory cell. The capacitor holds a high or low charge (1 or 0, respectively), and the transistor acts as a switch that lets the control circuitry on the chip read the capacitor’s state of charge or change it. As this form of memory is less expensive to produce than static RAM, it is the predominant form of computer memory used in modern computers. Both static and dynamic RAM are considered volatile, as their state is lost or reset when power is removed from the system.
By contrast, Read-only memory (ROM) stores data by permanently enabling or disabling selected transistors, such that the memory cannot be altered. Writeable variants of ROM (such as EEPROM and flash memory) share properties of both ROM and RAM, enabling data to persist without power and to be updated without requiring special equipment. These persistent forms of semiconductor ROM include USB flash drives, memory cards for cameras and portable devices, etc. As of 2007, NAND flash has begun to replace older forms of persistent storage, such as magnetic disks and tapes, while NOR flash is being used in place of ROM in netbooks and rugged computers, since it is capable of true random access, allowing direct code execution. ECC memory (which can be either SRAM or DRAM) includes special circuitry to detect and/or correct random faults (memory errors) in the stored data, using parity bits or error correction code. In general, the term RAM refers solely to solid-state memory devices (either DRAM or SRAM), and more specifically the main memory in most computers.
In optical storage, the term DVD-RAM is somewhat of a misnomer since, like CD-RW, a rewriteable DVD must be erased before it can be rewritten. One can read and over-write data in RAM. Many computer systems have a memory hierarchy consisting of CPU registers, on-die SRAM caches, external caches, DRAM, paging systems, and virtual memory or swap space on a hard drive. This entire pool of memory may be referred to as “RAM” by many developers, even though the various subsystems can have very different access times, violating the original concept behind the random access term in RAM. Even within a hierarchy level such as DRAM, the specific row, column, bank, rank, channel, or interleave organization of the components make the access time variable, although not to the extent that rotating storage media or a tape is variable.
The overall goal of using a memory hierarchy is to obtain the higher possible average access performance while minimizing the total cost of the entire memory system (generally, the memory hierarchy follows the access time with the fast CPU registers at the top and the slow hard drive at the bottom). In many modern personal computers, the RAM comes in an easily upgraded form of modules called memory modules or DRAM modules about the size of a few sticks of chewing gum. These can quickly be replaced should they become damaged or when changing needs demand more storage capacity. As suggested above, smaller amounts of RAM (mostly SRAM) are also integrated in the CPU and other ICs on the motherboard, as well as in hard-drives, CD-ROMs, and several other parts of the computer system.