Random Access Memory is the hardware in a computing device where the operating system, application programs and data in current use are kept so they can be quickly reached by the device's processor. RAM is the main memory in a computer, and it is much faster to read from and write to than other kinds of storage, such as a hard disk drive, solid-state drive or optical drive. Because of it's volatility, Random Access Memory can't store permanent data. RAM can be compared to a person's short-term memory, and a hard drive to a person's long-term memory. Short-term memory is focused on immediate work, but it can only keep a limited number of facts in view at any one time. Wehn a person's short-term memory fills up, it can be refreshed with facts stored in the brain's long-term memory. A computer also works this way. If RAM fills up, the computer's processor must repeatedly go to the hard disk to overlay the old data in RAM with new data. This process slows the computer's operation. A computer's hard disk can become completely full of data and unable to take any more, but RAM won't run out of memory. However, the combination of RAM and storage memory can be completely used up.
The term random access as applied to RAM comes from the fact that any storage location, also known as any memory address, can be accessed directly. Originially, the term Random Access Memory was used to distinguish regular core memory from offline memory. Offline memory typically referred to magenetic tape from which a specific piece of data could only be accessed by locating the address sequentially, starting at the beginning of the tape. RAM is organized and controlled in a way that enables data to be stored and retrieved directly to and from specific locations. RAM is similar in concept to a set of boxes in which each box can hold a 0 or a 1. Each box has a unique address that is found by counting across the columns and down the rows. A set of RAM boxes is called an array, and each box is known as a cell.
RAM is physically small and stored in microchips. It's also small in terms of the amount of data it can hold. A typical laptop computer may come with 8 gigabytes of RAM, while a hard disk drive can hold 10 terabytes. RAM microchips are gathered together into memory modules, which plug into slots in a computer's motherboard. A bus, or a set of electrical paths, is used to connect the motherboard slots to the processor. A hard drive, on the other hand stores data on the magnetized surface of what looks like a vinyl record. And, alternatively, an SSD stores data in memory chips that, unlike RAM, are nonvolatile, don't depend on having constant power and won't lose data once the power is turned off. Most PCs enable users to add RAM modules up to a certain limit. Having more RAM in a computer cuts down on the number of times the processor must read data from the hard disk, an operation that takes longer than reading data from RAM. RAM access time is in nanoseconds, while storage memory access time is in milliseconds.
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