IBM, Intel separately reveal advances in microchips

Use of 'high-k' material ensures that Moore's Law will endure

IBM and Intelaccelerated their horse race in semiconductors when each unveiled over the weekend similar chip-manufacturing advances.

The research from both companies involves a crucial building block -- called "high-k" material -- to build smaller, more efficient transistors in microprocessors. High-k materials are better insulators than standard silicon dioxide, allowing engineers to keep shrinking transistors without losing efficiency through the leakage of electricity.

In both announcements Saturday, engineers said they plan to use the material to build transistors that switch on and off better, using "high-k metal gate" technology.

The announcements promise to keep alive Moore's Law, which holds that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every two years. It's good news for users because the more transistors that can be packed on a microprocessor, the faster a PC runs.

The new materials will also allow manufacturers to avoid problems with continuing to etch transistors on chips at microscopic sizes and, more importantly, to mass-produce them so they're affordable to PC users. In fact, Intel officials predict this breakthrough alone will ensure that Moore's Law thrives "well into the next decade."

The announcements underscore an old industry rivalry, since IBM worked with Sony Corp., Toshiba Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc., Intel's main opponent in the microprocessor market.

Both Intel and AMD said they will use the technology to speed the transition from 65-nanometer chip-building architectures to 45nm ones. Intel plans to start production of a new laptop dual-core microprocessor, desktop dual-core and quad-core machines, and server dual and quad-core processors in the second half of the year. It expects to ramp up to full production in three factories by the first half of 2008.

"That would only be the first five of 15 products that we have in development for 45nm," said Kaizad Mistry, manager of the 45nm program at Intel.

Pressed on when the company would begin selling the chips, code-named Penryn, Intel declined to be more specific.

AMD plans to produce its first 45nm chips in mid-2008, in the wake of the launch of its first 65nm product, the quad-core "Barcelona" chip due out midyear, said AMD spokeswoman Jessica Kaiser. IBM said it plans to sell systems with chips that use the new transistors by the end of 2008. IBM intends to produce them at its plant in East Fishkill, N.Y.

Intel insists it has a large lead on all competitors in shrinking chip features to 45nm.

"We expect followers, but no company is anywhere near where we are with this incredible advancement," said Intel spokeswoman Kari Aakre. "We are not only announcing an amazing transistor breakthrough with our high-k, metal gate solution, but we're also already demonstrating it with five early versions of processors from our Penryn family, including server, desktop and laptop systems booting all major operating systems and various applications."

The new processors will mark a big improvement in speed and performance and will require less electricity than the previous generation of Intel microprocessors. If all goes as planned, they will also give Intel a bit of a head start in mass-producing chips with 45nm transistors. A nanometer is a microscopic measurement of a billionth of a meter. More than 2,000 transistors 45nm wide could fit on the period at the end of this sentence.

Intel's manufacturing lead should allow it to bring chips to market before its rivals, but IBM could get a greater return from this technology in the long term because it uses the high-k metal gates in a different way, said Richard Doherty, a senior analyst at The Envisioneering Group.

"It's a wonderfully parallel development of a technology that should lead to faster, more efficient chips in everything from PCs to cell phones and iPods," Doherty said.

"Intel has the advantage that they're already in production, but IBM's advance may be even more significant and lead to faster, smaller chips," he said. "The IBM breakthrough is to integrate the metal gate so it's embedded in the silicon. Intel put the metal gates on top of a proven silicon architecture."

IBM confirmed that it planned to use high-k, metal gate technology not to produce faster chips in the short term, but also to solve long-range problems such as progressing from 45nm production to 32nm and 22nm. The company will use the advance to aid development of large-scale servers and supercomputers, said Bernie Meyerson, chief technologist at IBM's systems and technology group.

"We don't build Vespa scooters, we build Ferraris. We've been talking about high-k for five years now, and if we wanted to, we could ship it out the door tomorrow. But there's no reason to do that because it doesn't solve any problem for us. We're not addressing a crisis issue that hit us in the head when we didn't see it coming," Meyerson said.

"Ours is a more fundamental implementation; it's a drop-in, or a one-for-one replacement, for SiO2," he said, referring to existing silicon dioxide technology. "I've said for years that gate oxide scaling is ending. The gates are literally five atoms thick. What are you going to do, build one that's two-and-a-half atoms thick?"

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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