Globalfoundries is speeding up the timeline for its 14nm process that will feature 3D transistors, looking to match Intel in both timing and architecture.
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
"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
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."