In the world of microprocessors, there is a battle going on: who will be the King of Process Technology? The outcome of that battle will largely depend upon who can produce parts that generate the best performance per watt and how small of a device you can place the resulting chip into. Intel, once a leader in process technology, fell behind the curve a couple of years back and subsequently lost market share against competitor AMD.
When IBM sold IBM Microelectronics, it created the false impression that IBM was exiting the Microprocessor segment. However, IBM still has significant processor efforts tied to its servers, mainframes, and storage offerings. As a result, IBM Research, one of the few remaining focused technologies, quietly continued their work and this week announced they have a viable 2nm process they are willing to license to others.
The Processor Landscape
Interestingly, IBM announced a close partnership with Intel just a short time ago; an ex-IBM Microelectronics executive runs AMD. Samsung produces IBM’s processors, and NVIDIA partners closely with IBM to create AI accelerators. If any of these companies, currently in competition with each other, could use this technology, they have the potential to leapfrog their competitors. The possibility of this outcome makes IBM a kingmaker in the processor space, and the deals they cut (or don’t cut) could redefine the competitive landscape for processors. With Intel and Samsung on the shortlist, things could get very interesting.
The Power Of Process Leadership
Process technology takes a while to adapt to any microprocessor architecture, so the improvements IBM discovered will likely take between one and two years to place into products depending on how compatible this process is to a chip’s architecture.
In terms of time to market, Samsung, which is linked most closely to IBM thanks to their production of IBM chips, has the most potential to ramp rapidly. This advantage isn’t just because they are already building for IBM but also because they use ARM, the most open of the chip architectures and the one that has platforms that appear to be the most tolerant of significant changes.
But Samsung, while incredibly powerful as a solutions company, is less potent with parts because their solutions can, at times, make them less attractive to companies that might otherwise consider Samsung processors. Samsung competing with the firms that could go to them for parts undoubtedly lowers their market power in this segment regardless of how good they are in it. And, to many, Samsung is excellent.
But suppose Samsung can make this process technology work. In that case, the resulting competitive advantage that processors would receive using this process should drive some firms that currently wouldn’t trust Samsung to revisit their position to prevent a significant loss in market share.
Intel’s recent alliance with IBM to build microprocessors puts them on this shortlist as well, and the FABs that Intel is funding could now be built to embrace 2nm. This manufacturing capability should come online within the two-year timeframe to apply this new process to Intel’s lines. Intel has also indicated they will go more aggressively after the third-party chip-making market placing them against Samsung with substantial US funding to help ensure Intel gets this technology working first. Intel could then take IBM’s processor business from Samsung, placing it back in the US, consistent with US Presidential needs, and then aggressively offer this capability to others.
Firms like TSMC and Global Foundries, which build chips for others, would then have to face the genuine possibility of losing some of their most valuable business – high-performing processors – to a vastly improved Intel.
Who Benefits from IBM’s Process Technology?
IBM’s process technology is a potential game-changer, but its real impact is 1 to 2 years out. They are planning to license the technology, and the firms most likely to benefit are Intel and Samsung. Still, nothing is stopping AMD and NVIDIA from licensing the technology as well. Qualcomm, as part of the Intel FAB announcement, could come in from the side as an ARM advocate and surprise everyone.
This week IBM reminded us that they are still a power to be reckoned with, and while this won’t make them a king, it will make them a kingmaker, and sometimes kingmakers can be the source of significant change. You may recall that IBM initially blessed Intel and Microsoft and forced Intel to license AMD, creating much of the current market dynamic. If you can create something, you can shake it up, and this week, IBM demonstrated they could massively shake up the processor market. It is going to be an interesting 12 to 24 months.
Image courtesy of IBM