Recently in Chipmaking Category

Belgium-based research institute IMEC has teamed up with Intel and a group of local universities on a programme that is intended to pave the way for exascale computers – supercomputers that are close to a thousand times more powerful than those being commissioned today.

“In 1997, we saw the first terascale machines. A few years ago, petascale appeared. We will hit exascale in around 2018,” said Wilfried Verachtert, high-performance computing project manager at IMEC, explaining that these machines will be able to perform 1018 floating-point calculations per second.

The most powerful supercomputer being made today is the Cray XT5 Jaguar with a rated performance of close to 2 petaflops

At a presentation held to celebrate the opening of a new cleanroom at IMEC and the foundation of the ExaScience lab, Martin Curley, senior principal engineer and director of Intel Labs Europe, said: “We are focused on creating the future of supercomputing. We have a job to do of creating a sustainable future. Exascale computing can really change our world.”

Curley said a the two main problems will be power consumption and the difficulty of writing highly parallel software. The performance required is the equivalent of 50 million laptops which would demand thousands of megawatts of power.

He explained that, by the time exascale computers are likely to appear, silicon-chip geometries will have dropped to 10nm. Although these devices can potentially run at tens of gigahertz, Curley said power consumption concerns would force supercomputer makers to run them much more slowly and potentially even slower than today’s processors. The move will demand billions of processing units in one supercomputer. “How are we going to achieve that? The only way is through billion-operation parallelism.”

Curley added: “Even with just 10 to 12 cores, we see the performance of commercial microprocessors begin to degrade. The biggest single challenge is parallelism.”

The ExaScience lab will, as its test application, work on software to predict the damage caused by the powerful magnetic fields that follow solar flares in the hope of providing more accurate information to satellite operators and the power-grid companies.

With current-generation supercomputers, the mesh used to analyse field strength has elements that are a million kilometres across, far larger than the Earth itself. An exascale machine would make it possible to scale the mesh size down to elements that are 10,000km across.

Verachtert said the project aims to get the power consumption of a machine from 7000MW – based on today’s technology - to 50MW, “and that is still higher than we want”.

One problem with a supercomputer than contains millions of discrete processors, each one containing thousands of processing elements, is the expected failure rate. “My optimistic projection is that there will be a failure every minute. It’s possible that there will be a failure every second. We have to do something about that.”

The failure rate will have a knock-on effect on programming. Today, it is possible to break up applications so that portions can be re-run after a hardware failure, which may happen once a day. That is impossible as the size of the machine scales up. Verachtert said the methods programmers use will have to take account of processors failing, using checkpoints and other techniques such as transactional memory – which Intel has researched heavily already – to allow code to be re-run automatically without disrupting other parts of the application.

STMicroelectronics expects to put its first 20nm process into production at its Crolles fab in France by the end of 2012 after completing a programme to catch up on internally produced processes with the major foundry suppliers.

Although the company expects to increase the amount of production that it outsources to foundry from its current level of 15 per cent to 20 per cent long-term, ST decided recently to put more investment into Crolles in a bid to quickly move to parity with the processes supplied by the major foundries and to be able to build its own derivative processes, such as the recently announced 32LPH process which uses a high-k metal-gate transistor structure.

Jean-Marc Chery, CTO of ST told analysts at the company’s annual Field Trip: “I am confident we will be able to to tape out in our 20nm low-power process the first product by Q4, 2012. This will gain more 30 per cent performance and a 2x shrink factor [over the previous process technology].”

Chery said the company is prototyping with its 32nm process and expects delivery of its first production immersion scanner next week so that production can ramp up in the third quarter of next year. This process ramp will follow just one quarter after the ramp for its low-power 40nm process. The 45nm process will ramp up in the fourth quarter of this year.

The people from GlobalFoundries travelled to Taiwan to let number-one foundry TSMC know that the youngest foundry is ready to keep on spending in what has become a capacity war in that business. It follows soon after TSMC’s own decision to push harder on capacity expansion with the building of its own Fab 15.

Although all this expansion might look like a one-way bet in the current market conditions, where you can pretty much sell everything you can make, by the time all of this capacity is meant to come onstream it could well be a different story.

Already trying to fill the second phase of its fab in Dresden as fast as possible with chipmaking gear, GlobalFoundries said at the Computex trade show in Taipei that it will build another section - once grants from Germany turn up - over the next two years. This will add 20,000 wafers per month, increasing Dresden’s capacity by one-third when that expansion has finished. Given that they have not started building the extension yet, this is a very aggressive schedule for filling a fab.

However, the schedule for the Malta, New York fab has slipped slightly. Originally slated to go into volume production in 2012, this is now not expected to happen until 2013. By the end of 2012, it will just be pilot production. However, Malta does not miss out on the capacity splurge. Fab 8’s peak capacity moves up from 42,000 wafers per month to 60,000 - eventually. Based on previous estimates from GlobalFoundries, this is unlikely to happen before the end of 2015.

Pushing the volume ramp at Malta back a bit may, if current market projections prove correct from analysts such as Future Horizons and IC Insights, help GlobalFoundries avoid walking straight into a capacity glut in 2012, and still capitalise on a recovery in 2013. However, things rarely work out that neatly in this business.

There’s more. GlobalFoundries’ owner ATIC said it would build a 3km2 ‘technology cluster’ in its home of Abu Dhabi. There is no firm news of a fab being built there other than strong hints: “GlobalFoundries is committed to partnering with ATIC to share best practices and expertise in cluster creation in the near-term and putting a significant technology and manufacturing presence in the region long-term.”