IBM's decision to get out of the semiconductor manufacturing business may be of little consequence in a post-silicon world.
In a deal announced today, GlobalFoundries is getting IBM's semiconductor manufacturing business and IBM is paying the company $1.5 billion to take it. In exchange, IBM gets access to manufacturing scale it does not have.
IBM's latest weak quarter, also announced Monday, clouds the manufacturing exit. CEO Ginni Rometty all but apologized for the slack earnings. But that doesn't change the fact that silicon is reaching its performance limits and there's no clear replacement.
IBM is one of the few global companies with the resources to figure out what comes next.
In announcing the GlobalFoundries deal, IBM said it has no plans to cut its planned $3 billion investment in semiconductor technology research over the next five years. The bigger issue is whether it is spending enough to extend silicon technologies and, ultimately, replace them.
In July, IBM detailed plans to invest in quantum computing, as well as brain-like emulation system called neurosynaptic computing. It is also investigating new materials to replace and extend silicon, including carbon nanotubes and graphene.
"A lot of our research focuses on post silicon," Arvind Krishna, general manager of IBM's manufacturing & development, said in an interview.
IBM is working on 10-nanometer and 7-nanometer chip designs -- and beyond -- but as size shrinks and silicon transistors near the point of physical limitation, manufacturing gets more expensive.
Silicon still has a ways to go, and IBM is researching how to get more use out of it by combining it with other materials. "Different materials may be able to extend silicon," said Krishna.
Solving the problem of what comes next isn’t just IBM’s problem, according to said Nathan Brookwood, a semiconductor industry analyst at Insight 64. “The stakes are not only high for IBM, the stakes are high for the entire semiconductor industry,” he said.
There is general agreement that silicon chips will reach their limit at about 7 nanometers, about a decade from now. But Brookwood said nothing is ever certain, and you can’t count out the possibility that someone will figure out a way to extend the technology another decade.
On the question of whether IBM is spending enough on research, Brookwood points to companies such as Intel and Samsung, which are also investing on extending silicon's usefulness. If one of these companies doesn’t develop a breakthrough, “then it’s not just IBM that’s in trouble, it’s the entire semiconductor industry,” he said.
For users of IBM's mainframe and Power-based systems, the deal with GlobalFoundries changes nothing, said Krishna.
"Given that all the design, all the software, all the operating systems, all of the firmware and all of the other system advantages that we put in remain with IBM, my basic answer would be it does not impact our mainframe, or power system or our storage clients at all," he said.
Matt Eastwood, an analyst at IDC, said the deal makes sense because of the changing economics of the semiconductor manufacturing business. "The cost of semiconductor manufacturing is going to continue to increase, making it a business where scale will matter more and more going forward," said Eastwood.
IBM has been working to increase adoption of its Power architecture. Last year, it formed the OpenPower Consortium, which made Power hardware and software available for open development. The goal is expand use of this architecture.
Global Foundries "also hopes that IBM's focus on growing the OpenPower ecosystem will create new demand for semiconductor manufacturing services," said Eastwood.
Krishna said GlobalFoundries' manufacturing capability will also help. "Over time, you will get the at-scale manufacturing that actually assures the longer-term sustainability of these systems," he said.
GlobalFoundries was created when AMD's manufacturing arm was spun off. The company operates in the U.S. and is headquartered here, but its majority owner is Abu Dhabi.