Globalfoundries is making an aggressive move to challenge Intel in chip manufacturing, with officials announcing that the company will be ready by 2014 with a 14-nanometer process that will include a three-dimensional transistor architecture similar to Intel's Tri-Gate method.
Globalfoundries' 14nm-XM (eXtreme Mobility) process will include a 3D FinFET transistor technology that will enable higher performance and greater power efficiency in mobile devices like smartphones. It also will come only a year after the foundry begins offering its 20nm process. If Globalfoundries can hit its target of 2014 for the 14nm-XM, it will leapfrog over other foundries like Tawain Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) and dovetail with Intel's plans to roll out its 14nm chips that same year.
The foundry's 14nm-XM architecture will include a combination of a 14nm FinFET device and Globalfoundries' 20nm low-power processes. Bringing together parts of varying size to create a new chip might seem odd, but it makes sense, according to Roger Kay, principal analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates.
"Globalfoundries' architecture might seem like a bit of a mishmash at first glance," Kay said in a Sept. 20 blog post of Forbes. "Putting different size features on different chip planes raises questions as to whether such a design can reap all the cost benefits of a fully 14nm part. For example, the 20nm planes will determine the size of the chip, which will affect both its cost and its power-savings. However, the smaller transistors will make the part more efficient than a 20nm-only unit would be, and the design choice meets all of Globalfoundries' objectives, and, I daresay, those of its customers."
Those objectives include a fast time to market, reducing the risk of migrating from a 20nm manufacturing process to a 14nm one, and creating extremely low-power chips.
"The 20nm process already ironed out by Globalfoundries is optimized for mobile systems on a chip (SoCs)," Kay wrote. "These chips are designed for smartphones that need to operate all day without recharging. This technology is preserved and carried forward in the 14XM."
A key to these capabilities is the FinFET transistor architecture. Intel this year began offering its Tri-Gate transistor architecture in its 22nm Ivy Bridge processors. Intel engineers had been working on the 3D technology for 10 years before announcing it in 2011, with the hope of increasing the performance and power efficiency of its chips and enabling the company to gain traction in the highly competitive mobile device chip space, which is dominated by ARM Holdings.
Like the FinFET design, Intel's Tri-Gate architecture essentially moves away from the flat, two-dimensional "planar" circuitry of previous designs and to a three-dimensional structure that enables a greater number of transistors in a similar space. Globalfoundries officials said Sept. 20 that the 14nm-XM FinFET process will bring a 40 to 60 percent increase in battery life to mobile devices, compared with current transistor architectures at 20nm.
Other foundries also are moving in the same direction. ARM and TSMC in July announced a deal in which the two companies would work together to develop 64-bit ARM-designed chips that will feature TSMC's FinFET technology starting with 20nm chips. Globalfoundries and ARM in August announced a similar agreement to optimize ARM's SoC designs for FinFET processes. United Microelectronics Corp. (UMC) also plans to use FinFETs starting at 20nm. However, neither TSMC nor UMC are expected to get to this point until 2014, giving Globalfoundries an edge.
Globalfoundries was created in 2009 when Advanced Micro Devices spun off its manufacturing business. Now the foundry contracts with other "fab-less" chip vendors like AMD-which no longer has its own fabrication facilities-and ARM to build their products. The rapid growth in the sales of smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices has put a premium on high performance and low cost in SoCs.
"The transition from 20nm to 14nm represents an important inflection point, and at Globalfoundries we have introduced a new technology that takes full advantage of the latest advances in device architecture while keeping the bigger SoC product-level picture in view," CTO Gregg Bartlett wrote in a Sept. 20 blog post. "With our new 14nm-XM offering, we have accelerated our leading-edge road map to deliver a technology optimized for the fast-growing smart mobile computing market. 14nm-XM will give customers the performance and power benefits of three-dimensional 'FinFET' transistors with less risk and a faster time-to-market, helping the fabless ecosystem maintain its leadership in mobility while enabling a new generation of smart mobile devices."
Endpoint Technologies' Kay said Globalfoundries had several advantages in being able to fast-track its development of the 14nm-XM process, including 10 years of work on the 3D transistor architecture that IBM undertook and gave to the Common Platform, a chip design group that includes Globalfoundries, IBM and Samsung Electronics. One benefit is being able to leverage the capabilities of high-K metal gate (HKMG) technology, which cuts down on the amount of electrical leakage as chips get smaller.
"It was critical to master this technique, which Intel has had since 2007," Kay said. "It was only in 2010 that AMD was able to get HKMG up and running in its 32nm processors, which have both processing and graphics on the same piece of silicon."
Development of the 14nm-XM technology already has begun in Globalfoundries' new Fab 8 in Saratoga County, N.Y., and the foundry is making early process design kits (PDKs) available now. Tape-outs by customers of the new SoCs are expected to happen next year, according to officials.
While Globalfoundries' 14nm-XM technology will come out the same time as Intel's 14nm chips, the fact that they are SoCs aimed at mobile devices like tablets and smartphones plays to Globalfoundries' strengths, Endpoint Technologies' Kay said. Intel dominates the PC and server chip markets, but it still is trying to get some traction in mobile devices. Meanwhile, Globalfoundries, TSMC, ARM and others already have strong positions in the mobile device space.
"Globalfoundries has come from way behind to nip at Intel's heels," Kay wrote. "The 14XM will hit the market in volume in mid-2014, right on top of Intel's 14nm processors. And Globalfoundries and its customers have the pole position in high mobility, offering an ultra-low power mobile SoC with a whole ecosystem around it rather than just a processor. â¦ A race that had almost gotten boring is suddenly exciting again."