By combining electrical, physical, and transport/atomistic modeling results, this study identifies critical conductive filament (CF) features controlling TiN/HfO 2/TiN resistive memory (RRAM) operations. The leakage current through the dielectric is found to be supported by the oxygen vacancies, which tend to segregate at hafnia grain boundaries. We simulate the evolution of a current path during the forming operation employing the multiphonon trap-assisted tunneling (TAT) electron transport model. The forming process is analyzed within the concept of dielectric breakdown, which exhibits much shorter characteristic times than the electroforming process conventionally employed to describe the formation of the conductive filament. The resulting conductive filament is calculated to produce a non-uniform temperature profile along its length during the reset operation, promoting preferential oxidation of the filament tip. A thin dielectric barrier resulting from the CF tip oxidation is found to control filament resistance in the high resistive state. Field-driven dielectric breakdown of this barrier during the set operation restores the filament to its initial low resistive state. These findings point to the critical importance of controlling the filament cross section during forming to achieve low power RRAM cell switching. © 2011 American Institute of Physics.