IBM has unveiled a 7-nanometer test chip, looking to get a jump on Intel as the processor industry looks to extend Moore’s Law while continuing to shrink the processors.
Big Blue introduced the 7nm test node July 9, saying it is the result of five years of development work by an alliance of IBM Research, chip foundry Globalfoundries and Samsung at SUNY Polytechnic Institute’s Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering.
IBM officials said the 7nm processors will be used for the company’s Power systems and mainframes to run modern workloads such as big data analytics, cloud services and mobile applications.
“The implications of our achievement are huge for the computer industry,” Mukesh Khare, vice president of IBM Semiconductor Technology Research, wrote in a post on the company blog. “By making the chips inside computers more powerful and more efficient, IBM and our partners will be able to produce the next generations of servers and storage systems for cloud computing, big data analytics and cognitive computing.”
Moore’s Law has been the key to driving up the performance and efficiency of processors while continuing to shrink them in size, enabling computers the size of smartphones to do the work that decades ago would require rooms full of massive systems. Moore’s Law refers to the prediction first stated in 1965 by Intel founder Gordon Moore, who said that the number of transistors on a chip would double about every 18 months. Over the decades, it has been the driving force behind the development efforts of Intel and others.
However, there are challenges facing Moore’s Law—which reached its 50th anniversary this year—from the physical limits being hit as the chips shrink to the growing manufacturing costs. IBM and Intel both are using innovative new technologies to help keep meeting the dictates of Moore’s Law while driving down the cost-per-transistor as the manufacturing process drops from 14nm to 10nm to 7nm and beyond.
Khare wrote that to reach 7nm, IBM has made “dozens of design and tooling improvements” and is using new materials such as silicon germanium (SiGe) in the channels on the chips that conduct electricity, making them higher performing and more efficient, and Extreme Ultraviolet (EUV) in the chip-making process, which offers improvements over the optical lithography now being used.
“Looking ahead, there’s no clear path to extend the life of the silicon semiconductor further into the future,” he wrote. “The next major wave of progress, the 5 nm node, will be even more challenging than the 7 nm node has been.”
The improved designs and new materials hold the promise of getting more than 20 billion transistors on a chip the size of a fingernail that can fit into everything from smartphones to spacecraft, IBM officials said.
IBM Reaches 7nm Milestone for Chips
Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights and Strategy, said it’s important for the industry that IBM continues to innovate around chip technology and to help drive Moore’s Law. However, he said IBM “has a track record” of coming out with early announcements around chip innovation, and that there is still a lot that needs to be done to make the jump from having such a test chip to actually having processors running in systems. Moorhead pointed to IBM’s announcement in 2012 regarding carbon nanotubes as a foundation of future chips.
“Where are the carbon nanotubes?” he asked.
The announcement regarding the 7nm test node also doesn’t mean that IBM has jumped ahead of Intel in the chip development field, Moorhead told eWEEK.
“It’s not a milestone from a competitive standpoint,” he said. “My hunch is that Intel probably has their own” 7nm test chips working.
Intel currently is rolling out 14nm processors for everything from smartphones and devices for the Internet of things (IoT) to high-end servers, and is gearing up for 10nm chips that will start to roll out next year. Intel researchers also have started talking about 7nm processors that will come in 2018, and will also use such new materials as EUV.
Plus, Intel has an advantage on IBM in that it not only does its own chip design and development, but also manufacturing, Moorhead said. IBM last year sold its manufacturing business to Globalfoundries for $1.5 billion, which means there are other parties now that will have a say when the chips get to market. IBM no longer has complete control over the end-to-end process.
“You have to judge the dates,” he said. “They don’t own the dates anymore.”
While IBM has sold its chip manufacturing business to Globalfoundries, it isn’t backing off from chip development. The company last year announced it is spending $3 billion over five years. At the time, officials talked about driving to 7nm. Now they’re starting to talk about 5nm.