IBM as leader of a consortium including New York State, GlobalFoundries, Samsung and equipment providers, has today announced it has made ultradense computer chips with approximately four times the capacity of today's most powerful processors. the consortium has manufactured chips at the 7nm fabrication size, which compares with current processors that reach down to the 14nm fabrication point (such as the Samsung Exynos 7420). These processors are not yet ready for commercial production but instead the manufactured batch are seen more as a technology demonstrator and prototype chip. What exactly does this mean? It relates to the fundamental internal components of semiconductors that are able to switch current at nanosecond intervals. Currently, the overall industry is managing the commercial transition from 14nm to 10nm manufacturing.
The mobile processors that power our smartphones, tablets and Chromebooks are at least a generation behind the desktop and server processors. Each new generation typically reduces the overall size of the processor by around 50% as the components are squeezed into a smaller and smaller space. As component and chip sizes are reduced, so the voltage needed to drive them is reduced. This is significant because the power required for a processor is proportional to the square of the current provided. A small reduction in voltage can cause a disproportionately large drop in power consumption. This has significant implications for all sorts of computing uses, from arrays of blade servers operating in a data centre somewhere now requiring less power for both the chips and the environmental controls (as less power used means less heat produced) to the smartphone in our hand lasting longer to a charge and being able to work harder. To put the 7nm size in context, a strand of DNA is around 2.5nm in diameter. IBM made the advance by using silicon-germanium rather than pure silicon for important regions of the molecular-size switches.
Today's announcement comes at a time when the semiconductor industry is struggling to produce smaller and smaller chips. The current manufacturing process is to use extreme ultraviolet light, EUV, in order to etch patterns on chips at such a fine resolution it is approaching the diameter of individual atoms. Unfortunately, the long exposure times and need for specialist stabilized buildings – because the slightest vibration may ruin the batch of processors – is causing businesses problems adopting the newer smaller size. These technical issues need to be resolved before smaller processors can enter mass production and whilst a number of manufacturers are aiming to start building processors in small scale pre-production quantities, these forecasts are for 2017.
To pull the mobile processor market back into focus, Samsung's introduction of the Exynos 7420 processor, built to a 14nm process, stole a march over the competition when it was commercially introduced earlier in the year. Most other processor manufacturers were still building mobile System-on-Chips on a 28nm processor, although Qualcomm's Snapdragon 810 comes on a 20nm process and a number of Intel Atom processors are built on a 22nm process. Samsung need to consolidate their Exynos processor family and introduce more models; the rumors point towards the Note 5 launching with the Exynos 7422 processor later in the year. Other manufacturers will eventually catch up, but perhaps by then Samsung will have introduced 10nm or smaller processors? And perhaps will be able to sell Exynos to other manufacturers?