Moore’s Law Splinters

What exactly is the next process node and when should chipmakers move to that node? We may never know.


By Ed Sperling

Moore’s Law continues progressing at a rate of one node every two years or so, but the number of companies that are adhering to that schedule is becoming much harder to pinpoint.

Even the nodes themselves are becoming fuzzy. While Intel is looking at 32nm as the next node after 45nm, TSMC is looking at 28nm as the next node after 40nm. And there are likely to be extensions within each node to allow some companies to stay on a process node a lot longer than before.

Even within companies, there is no clear answer about when to move to the next node. Freescale, which has been one of the die-hard adherents to the relentless schedule of Moore’s Law, has recently modified its stance. It follows the road map in some cases and not in others.

“It’s different by market,” said Lisa Su, Freescale’s chief technology officer. “In the networking market, we went from 90nm to 45nm. We skipped 65nm. In the automotive segment we won’t do that. We’re doing a lot of 90nm products now and will move to 65nm. In the consumer segment it is very hard to skip a node. If you’re in the networking segment, it’s hard to skip a node but we did it. 22nm is going to be extraordinarily tough. I think skipping nodes is more of a function of the market segment than the technology.”

Translation: It’s going to cost a bundle at each new node, and companies are thinking very hard about what should be migrated and when, where the various derivatives of those chips can be sold and whether a platform approach will work to save costs.

“The lithographers were happy that they got some of the issues solved (at 22nm), but it’s still going to be very expensive,” Su said.

Consider that an understatement. The common thinking these days is that for early adopters, the cost will be exorbitant. For one thing, yield will vary because of process variability, which is higher at each new node because of the complexity involved. At 22nm, foundries such as TSMC already are talking about restrictive design rules and IBM is debating whether to actually reduce some functionality at that node to save power and improve performance. Intel says it has 22nm well under way, but exactly what will be in its processors at that node has not been publicly disclosed.

Even the FPGA world is shifting its strategy. Actel, which has built much of its business at 130nm, is moving to 65nm as its next node. Rich Kapusta, Actel’s vice president of marketing and business development, said the reason to stop there is that the 65nm process for that node is already well tested and variability is low.

Platforms, IP and other strategies

What is happening at Freescale and Actel is happening in many other companies, as well. Decisions about cost vs. yield vs. market opportunity are being discussed everywhere. In some cases, companies decide to move to the next process node but stay at each node longer. In others, they wait until it is absolutely necessary to move to the next node, and then remain one step behind the bleeding edge where the processes are already mature.

Platforms are another strategy that has crept into discussions. Intel adopted its first platform when it introduced its Centrino line of processors for laptop computers in 2003 after deciding that multiple iterations of a single processor using different clock speeds was inefficient. That same approach is now being applied to both chips and the models being used to design those chips. Both Mentor Graphics and Synopsys are pushing platforms, and IBM, Samsung and Chartered Semiconductor have teamed up to create the Common Platform for manufacturing.

The goal in each of these cases is to make work go farther than one design to amortize some of the architectural and design costs. Validated IP is another strategy that fits into that scenario. And while all designs still need to be verified, with a platform approach not all of the design has to be verified for each iteration or derivative.

Tom Quan, senior director of EDA and design service marketing, said Moore’s Law is flattening. The giant bell curve approach to a process node is changing to reflect runaway costs and complexity and the ability to recoup non-recurring engineering expenses. And while the overall number of designs may not change significantly, particularly in the SoC realm, the number at the most advanced process nodes has already changed.

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