IBM is claiming a significant breakthrough in the race with Intel to produce the first 22-nanometer microprocessors for use in an array of products from large-scale server systems to smaller, more power-efficient cell phones and PDAs.
With current technology, companies such as Intel, Advanced Micro Devices and IBM are pushing their way toward producing processors at 45 nanometers-Intel is already selling 45-nm chips-that will then be followed by 32-nm microprocessors.
However, the methods used to produce 45- and 32-nm chips have their limits and at 22 nm, new techniques are needed to etch the integrated circuits onto processors that are this small in scale, a nanometer being 1 billionth of a meter.
On Sept. 17, IBM announced that it had overcome some of the obstacles to producing such small microprocessors. The technique, which IBM called Computational Scaling, overcomes the limitations of current lithography methods by using mathematical techniques and software to manipulate the shapes of the masks and the illuminating source during the etching process.
The result is that IBM will not have to radically change its manufacturing process in order to create these 22-nm processors. In this way, IBM is keeping up with Moore's Law, which states that computer processing power doubles every 18 months, without changing the essential equipment it will use for 45- and 32-nm processors.
At the same time, IBM will be able to keep up with the chip manufacturing breakthroughs being developed by Intel. Intel's road map calls for 32-nm processors in 2009, with new microprocessor architecture arriving in 2010 and 22-nm chips in 2011.
For all these chip makers, 22-nm processors will allow for chips that use less power and offer more performance for a range of devices, including giant server systems and small, more mobile devices such as notebooks and other mobile devices. In laptops, for example, 22-nm chips could potentially increase battery life while allowing OEMs to experiment with different form factors that are smaller and weigh less.
IBM is also looking to integrate these chips into its cloud computing strategy. In this case, IBM said it believes it will have to build new types of servers to allow for the flexibility and compute power needed in a cloud computing infrastructure that requires resources on demand.
So far, IBM has not offered a specific date for when it plans to bring 22-nm processors into the mainstream. It's believed that IBM's 32-nm processors will arrive in 2009.
In order to work toward its goal of 22-nm chips, IBM is partnering with Mentor Graphics and Toppan Printing to come up with these new techniques. For example, IBM is using Mentor's technology to produce low-cost printing of two-dimensional patterns needed to create the 22-nm processors.
In August, IBM also announced that along with several of its chip development partners it had managed to create a method for developing SRAM (static RAM) memory cells on a 22-nm manufacturing method. This is a key step toward eventually producing fully functioning 22-nm processors.