As the designated enforcer of Moore’s Law, Intel has consistently found a way to keep its two-year process shrink cadence on schedule. This time it’s with three-dimensional semiconductors. On Wednesday, Intel announced it has once again “re-invented” the transistor with its new 3D Tri-Gate technology. “For the first time in history, the transistor has officially entered the third dimension,” declared Intel Senior Fellow Mark Bohr.
The company will begin churning out the Tri-Gate silicon in its upcoming “Ivy Bridge” processors, the 22nm shrink of the current generation 32nm Sandy Bridge processors. Intel maintains the 3D transistor technology will only add 2 to 3 percent to the cost of manufacturing the wafers, so system costs should take only a minor hit.
The Tri-Gate technology has been in the works since 2002 in anticipation of the time when the traditional 2D planar technology would run out of steam. Intel actually demonstrated Tri-Gate circuits in SRAM back in 2009, but this is the first time the 3D technology will appear in microprocessors.
The problem is that as semiconductor geometries shrink, it gets increasingly difficult to prevent the electrons from leaking out of the gates, especially at higher voltages. The solution was to build up them up into three-dimensional fin structures so they can be wrapped around the channel, making it more difficult for the electrons to escape. Essentially they’ve blocked the electrons on three sides instead of the one in the flat transistor.
The first Ivy Bridge processors for are slated for production in the second half 2011, probably following Intel’s usual pattern of starting with the desktop chips and following with the Xeon server parts. The mobile Atom chips will be the last to see the 3D technology, with availability not expected until the second half of 2012.
The other foundry makers — the IBM fab consortium TSMC, GlobalFoundries, et al. — all plan to transition to 3D transistors, (where the technology is more generally known as FinFET) at some point, but none have immediate plans to do so. TSMC says it will implement its 3D technology on the 14nm node. According to Bohr, the commercialization of its Tri-Gate technology puts Intel three years ahead of the other foundries.
That remains to be seen, but Intel does appear to be at least temporarily widening its lead in process technology. But why should anyone care? As AMD, NVIDIA and other chip vendors like to remind us, people buy computing products not process technologies.
But the fundamentals do matter. Computing heft and power efficiency begins at the silicon and Intel has maintained a built-in advantage against its competition by getting to the smaller geometries first. Less leaky gates, means you can boost clock speed for more performance or, if power consumption is the goal, slow down the clock but still maintain the performance of the previous generation. According to the Intel, the current Tri-Gate will enable a 50 percent power reduction at constant performance or a 37 percent performance increase at low voltages when compared to the 32nm technology. Those are not just marginal improvements.
For performance-minded customers, more efficient transistors means higher clocks for faster execution, and Intel has taken advantage of this to maintain its speed advantage. In the x86 server realm, AMD 45nm Magny Cours Opterons have had to go against higher clocked Intel’s 32nm Westmere Xeon processors. To blunt the process technology disadvantage, AMD has resorted to higher core counts and greater emphasis on memory bandwidth. That’s a good strategy, especially for high performance computing, but even there Intel has maintained a dominant market share. The next matchup in 2012 will pit the 22nm Ivy Bridge Xeons against the 32nm Interlagos Opterons, so that’s shaping up to be a rerun of previous Xeon-Opteron battles.
Meanwhile, NVIDIA’s Fermi processors are on TSMC’s 40nm process node. Although GPUs compete only indirectly with the x86 CPUs, in the HPC space, Intel’s upcoming MIC accelerator certainly will. And since the first MIC product, Knights Corner, is going to be using Intel’s new 3D 22nm technology, the performance matchup should be especially interesting. Of course, by the time Knights Corner hits the streets (presumably the first half of 2012), NVIDIA will have moved on to TSMC’s 28nm node and the next-generation Kepler architecture, so don’t expect any GPGPU-killing performances from MIC on its first go-around.
In 2013, the Intel’s 22nm technology will be implemented for Haswell, the next microarchitecture that will supplant Sandy Bridge. (With Haswell, we might get our first taste of actual 3D processors, aka chip stacking.) Then in 2014 , Intel intends to extend the Tri-Gate technology to the 14nm node. Beyond that, it looks like Intel may have to re-invent the transistor once again.
Here’s a short video of Mark Bohr talking about the new technology in a cute Disney-like presentation: