Analysis There are two reasons why Intel is switching to a new process architecture: it can, and it must.
Usually every time there’s a die shrink of a computer processor there’s always an attendant evolution of the technology to to produce it. I think back recently to the introduction of super filtered water immersion lithography. The goal of immersion lithography was to increase the ability to resolve the fine line wire traces of the photo masks as they were exposed onto photosensitive emulsion coating a silicon wafer. The problem is the light travels from the photomask to the surface of the wafer through ‘air’. There’s a small gap, and air is full of optical scrambling atoms and molecules that make the photomask slightly blurry. If you put a layer of water between the mask the wafer, you have in a sense a ‘lens’ made of optically superior water molecules that act more predictably than ‘air’. Likewise you get better chip yields, more profit, higher margins etc.
As the wire traces on microchips continue to get thinner and transistors smaller the physics involved are harder to control. Electrodynamics begin to follow the laws of Quantum Electro-dynamics rather than Maxwell’s equations. This makes it harder to tell when a transistor has switched on or off and the basic digits of the digital computer (1s and 0s) become harder and harder to measure and register properly. IBM and Intel have waged a war on shrinking their dies all through the 80s and 90s. IBM chose to adopt new, sometimes exotic materials (copper metal for traces instead of aluminum, silicon on insulator, high-K dielectric gates). Intel chose to go the direction of improving what they had using higher energy light sources and only adopting very new processes when absolutely, positively necessary. At the same time, Intel was cranking out such volumes of current generation product it almost seem as though it didn’t need to innovate at all. But IBM kept Intel honest as did Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (contract manufacturer of micro-processors). And Intel continued to maintain its volume and technological advantage.
ARM (formerly the Acorn Risc Machine) became a cpu manufacturer during the golden age off RISC computers (early and mid-1980s). Over time they got out of manufacturing and started selling their processor designs to anyone that wanted to embed a core microprocessor into a bigger chip design. Eventually ARM became the defacto standard micro chip for smart handheld devices and telephones before Intel had to react. Intel had come up with a market leading low voltage cheap cpu in the Atom processor. But they did not have the specialized knowledge and capability ARM had with embedded cpus. Licensees of ARM designs began cranking out newer generations of higher performance and lower power cpus than Intel’s research labs could create and the stage was set for a battle royale of low power/high performance.
Which brings us now to an attempt to continue to scale down the processor power requirements through the same brute force that worked in the past. Moore’s Law, an epigram quoted from Intel’s Gordon Moore indicated the rate at which the ‘industry’ would continue to scaled down the size of the ‘wires’ in silicon chips would increase speed and lower costs. Speeds would double, prices would halve and this would continue on ad infinitum to some distant future. The problem has been always that the future is now. Intel hit a brick wall back around the end off the Pentium IV era when they couldn’t get speeds to double anymore without also doubling the amount of waste heat coming off of the chip. That heat was harder and harder to remove efficiently and soon, it appeared the chips would create so much heat they might melt. Intel worked around this by putting multiple CPUs on the same silicon wafers they used for previous generation chips and got some amount of performance scaling to work. Along those lines they have research projects to create first an 80 core processor, then a 48 and now a 24 core processor (which might actually turn into a shippable product). But what about Moore’s Law? Well, the scaling has continued downward, and power requirements have improved but it’s getting harder and harder to shave down those little wire traces and get the bang that drives profits for Intel. Now Intel is going the full-on research and development route by adopting a new way of making transistors on silicon. It’s called a Fin Field Effect Trasistor or FinFET. And it makes use of not just the surface layer of metal but the surface and the left and right sides, effectively giving you 3x the surface to move the electrons around the processor. If they can get this to work on a modern day silicon chip production line, they will be able to continue differentiating their product, keeping their costs manageable and selling more chips. But it’s a big risk and bet I’m sure everyone hopes will pay off.
- Intel’s 3D CPUs: Watch for Powerful, Low-Power Mobile Devices (pcworld.com)
- Moore’s Law Is Alive And Well, And Intel Will Prove It Today (newenterprise.allthingsd.com)