Research: April 2008 Archives

There is some more detail available on the Common Platform alliance 32nm from the advance material put together by the organisers of the VLSI Technology Symposium. It illustrates the kind of bets that the fabs and foundries are making on the next generation of silicon, although the details are still sketchy.

With the 32nm generation, IBM and its partners expect to be able to deliver a process that exceeds the industry consensus on what is needed at that point. The consensus is summed up in the pile of documents that go by the name of the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS). Taken together, the documents are effectively the guidelines for what the industry needs to stay on Moore's Law.

Scattered throughout the PDFs are tables of specifications that semiconductors should get close to if they are to be useful at a given process geometry. The numbers are all colour coded: yellow means tricky but possible; red means nobody has an answer yet, or at least one they've shared in public.

Earlier today, IBM put out a release claiming a major "performance leap" for chips that use its forthcoming 32nm semiconductor process. Working out what's changed since the last release is a bit trickier. Basically, IBM and some of the companies in its group of chipmaking collaborators have made a bunch of test chips and are now confident enough to declare the 32nm process open for business.

Other than that, the content of today's missive is not broadly different from the one that IBM and its partners put out just ahead of the chipmaking industry's big conference on process technologies, the International Electron Device Meeting in Washington DC, held late last year. There really isn't a lot more detail, other than there is now a timetable: IBM will start running prototypes for customers of the companies in its Common Platform alliance in the third quarter of this year. The implication is that the company's in the Common Platform team will have a working 32nm process in the second half of 2009, about the same time as Intel and TSMC as long as they stay on schedule.

The way IBM describes its racetrack memory – yet another candidate for "memory of the future" – it's easy to be left with the impression that Big Blue is out on its own with this one. Stacey Higginbotham breathlessly opines: "IBM sure has some seriously crazy semiconductor researchers locked in its basement. These guys question everything when it comes to advancing chip technology."

Maybe IBM does. But it's not alone. What IBM claimed in the press release was that a memory 100 times denser than today's flash devices is on its way:

"The devices would not only store vastly more information in the same space, but also require much less power and generate much less heat, and be practically unbreakable; the result: massive amounts of personal storage that could run on a single battery for weeks at a time and last for decades."

Sounds great. When can I buy one? Not any time soon if you look more closely at what IBM's release is based on. The journal Science has published a paper on the work of Stuart Parkin's group at its Almaden lab in San Jose that describes a tweak to a type of magnetic memory. It's a bit like a solid-state disk state. You store bits magnetically: the state depends on which way the stored field points, either forwards or backwards along a metal wire.