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September 24, 2012

GLOBALFOUNDRIES to Challenge Intel at 14nm

Michael Feldman

Last week GLOBALFOUNDRIES revealed that it will move to 14nm process technology by 2014, the same year rival chip manufacturer Intel is scheduled to do so. If successful, it will bring some much-needed parity into chip manufacturing. Intel has enjoyed a dominant position in semiconductor technology for years, making it difficult for competitors, especially arch-rival AMD, to go head-to-head in the marketplace.

The move means GLOBALFOUNDRIES will have just a single year to transition its 20nm technology to 14nm. Since 2003, the semiconductor manufacturer has been on a two-year cadence for process shrinks. According to the press release issued last week, the faster schedule is possible because it’s able to reuse a lot of the 20nm technology that it expects to deliver in 2013.

That seems somewhat counterintuitive, considering GLOBALFOUNDRIES’ 20nm technology will be based on the conventional 2D planar model, while the 14nm node will employ the 3D “FinFET” technology. This would be GLOBALFOUNDRIES’ first FinFET process node, although according to them, they’ve been working on the technology for a decade. Intel moved to 3D transistors this year with its Ivy Bridge CPUs (and soon, the Xeon Phi manycore chips), putting it at least a generation ahead of its other chip manufacturers.

GLOBALFOUNDRIES’ new 14nm technology is aimed at SoC designs for mobile devices, especially smartphones, sales of which have been growing at about 50 percent per year since 2009. The smaller transistor geometries are especially important in this market, since battery life is directly dependent on the capabilities of the underlying transistors, especially their ability to minimize current leakage. GLOBALFOUNDRIES claims their 14nm node will enable a 40 to 60 percent improvement in battery life, thanks to its less leaky FinFET design.

But according to a report in PC Magazine, the technology is also applicable to mainstream CPUs and GPUs since the voltages can be scaled to produce faster clocks, and thus more performant microprocessors.

If GLOBALFOUNDRIES can pull this off, it could have significant ramifications for the balance of power in chipmaking. AMD relies on GLOBALFOUNDRIES to manufacturer the majority of its CPUs, and a more level playing field could help blunt Intel’s fundamental advantage in transistor technology. Maybe more significantly, GLOBALFOUNDRIES has hooked up with ARM, which is not only looking to protect its mobile turf from Intel, but is also eyeing the chip giant’s server and desktop market.

Overall, greater parity in transistor-making would almost surely benefit nearly every segment of the computer industry — from cell phones and servers to supercomputers. In this case, Intel’s loss would be everyone else’s gain.

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