Analysis: Intel's big 45nm break

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Analysis: Intel's big 45nm break

Cut in power leakage is important, but just one of several improvements
needed for tomorrow's chips.

Intel's new 45nm processor codenamed Penryn allows the chipmaker to take on some fundamental challenges that the semiconductor industry is facing on its road to ever smaller chips, but it is just a small step in the overall redesign required for super small chips.

Intel has found a new way to cut transistor leakage by swapping out some of the materials that its uses to construct the devices. The main benefit of this approach lies in the fact that the use of these so-called High-k and metal gate transistors allows the chipmaker to maintain its current transistor design and keep using current production techniques.

Current generation technologies using silicon dioxide had reached their limits and couldn't be deployed in smaller chips without drasitcally increasing leakage. Especially the High-k technique allows Intel to keep using existing manufacturing and design techniques for several generations of semiconductors.

"This is significant, just like a lot of things that we see happening at the 45nm scale. It's one of the steps required to drastically change the way that we manufacture semiconductors," said Jim McGregor, a director with analyst firm Instat who covers chip designs.

Semiconductor researchers have discussed both techniques for years now, but so far nobody has been able to demonstrate any working chips. Intel on Friday unveiled early production units of its High-k and metal gate chips and is preparing to start shipping them in volume later this year.

An ideal transistor is able to completely block the electric current traveling through its components. But in practice current slips by components that are designed to block these flows. This process is known as leakage. It shortens battery life in notebook computers and causes enterprise servers to produce more heat. As chip components continue to shrink in size, leakage has become an increasing issue.

Chip developers such as AMD and IBM are relying on more expensive production techniques such as Silicon on Insulator (SOI) and are planning to switch to so-called immersion lithography for their 45nm chips. But Intel's ability to stick to its current production process ensures a low cost and efficient transition.

Independent industry analyst Rob Enderle typified the announcement as "an advancement that allows you to extend a process that would otherwise be obsolete."

"It allows Intel to bring something to market that otherwise probably wouldn't have shown up until next year," Endrerle told vnunet.com.

Leakage inside the transistor however is only a part of the problem that is facing next generation semiconductors. Chipmakers at some point will have to overhaul the production process and overall chip design as well.

Instat's McGregor typified Intel's new processor as an evolution rather than a revolution. "We needed to change the materials used in semiconductor design. But this won't be the last change," McGregor told vnunet.com.

"It's one of many steps in the grander scheme of changes that are coming."

Intel plans to start using immersion lithography by 2009. This etching technique is expected to provide the high level of precision required for 32nm chips. The company last year also unveiled a tri-gate transistor in which the transistor is essentially wrapped inside isolating material, which further reduces leakage.

McGregor added that in addition to tackling transistor gate leakage, chip manufacturers will also need to solve the issue of source-drain leakage as well as overhaul chip manufacturing techniques and come up with a new transistor designs.

Intel claimed that the introduction of High-k and metal gate technology extended its technology lead over its competitors by one year. Although no other semiconductor manufacturer so far has demonstrated any working chips, IBM and AMD have both said that they plan to use High-k technology in their next generation processors.

"This is a horse race. Intel may be the first guy out of the gate with High-k, but IBM will be following in very short order," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight64 specializing in semiconductor technology.

IBM has a technology alliance with a series of vendors including AMD, Toshiba and Freescale and is expected to share its High-k technology with competitors.

Being able to cut leakage does however provide Intel with an advantage in low power computing, an area where the company already leads today and where competitors are few and far between.

Cutting power consumption is especially important as portable and low power devices are expected to provide the most growth in tomorrow's markets.

"All the original equipment manufacturers are focused on design work," said Rob Enderle. "If you give them a tighter thermal envelope, they can do more with the size of their devices. This helps to accelerate those kinds of devices."
  • Intel unveils first 45nm processors
  • Video: Intel demonstrates world's first working 45nm chips
  • Video: A look inside Intel's Penryn 45nm processor
  • Blog: Intel's revolutionary 45nm evolution
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