Intel and IBM both launched new advances in chip design at the weekend in the latest semi-conductor race for dominance.
Both companies announced new, smaller and more efficient microprocessor designs thanks to inclusion of so-called high-k material. High-k materials are better insulators than standard silicon dioxide and so allow engineers to keep shrinking transistors without losing efficiency through leaking electricity.
Engineers from both companies say 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 too because the more transistors that can be packed on a microprocessor, the faster it runs a PC.
The new materials also mean the manufacturers won't have a problem continuing to etch transistors on chips at microscopic sizes, and more importantly, mass-produce them so they're affordable to PC users. In fact, Intel officials predict this breakthrough alone will ensure Moore's Law thrives "well into the next decade".
The announcements underscore an old industry rivalry between Intel and AMD. Both companies say they will use the technology to speed the transition from 65-nanometer chip-building architecture to 45nm. Intel is due to start in the second half of the year production of the family: a new laptop dual-core microprocessor, a desktop dual-core and a quad-core, and server dual and quad-core processors.
AMD plans to produce its first 45nm chips in mid-2008, in the wake of the launch of its first 65nm product, the quadcore "Barcelona", due out in mid-2007. IBM said it plans to sell systems with chips that use the new transistors by the end of 2008.
Intel insists it has a large lead on all competitors in the progress of shrinking chip features to 45nm. "We expect followers, but no company is anywhere near where we are with this incredible advancement," said an Intel spokeswoman. "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 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.
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, one analyst said. "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," said Richard Doherty, senior analyst with The Envisioneering Group.
"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. 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 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 for IBM's Systems & 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?"