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Intel's Ambitious Process Roadmap

September 20, 2009

Jack Ganssle-September 20, 2009

Intel recently released some details about its future process goals. One highlight: by 2022 they'll be producing, in volume, chips with 4 nanometer(nm) geometries. Since a silicon atom measures (as much as that word means on quantum scales) about an angstrom across, feature sizes will be a mere 40 atoms long!

One might be skeptical. Except twenty years ago we wouldn't have believed the industry would have achieved 45 nm, which is so much shorter than a wavelength of light that pundits were predicting the end of Moore's Law.

And in 2004 Intel was predicting much the same (see Slide Three in its IDEM presentation..) Over the last five years they have been amazingly accurate in forecasting process scaling.

The company thinks they can continue to scale with current sorts of technologies, but admit to hoping for a bit of magic, er, "another technological breakthrough," to get to 8 nm. That's nearly a decade away, though, and a lot can happen in ten years.

Some of their current parts sport over 800 million transistors. Toss that number into the Moore's Law cauldron and high-end parts might have 100 billion transistors in 2022!

What will we do with all of those? Multi-core runs out of steam, unless one goes to unique architectures that don't work well with general purpose computing, at around 8 cores. Perhaps they'll be building many-core-friendly specialty parts like GPUs. Or will caches explode in size?

And what will a fab cost?

Another site that covers this story has a funny comment from a reader: "maybe after 2024 Intel might round up the value [process geometry] to zero and stop processor manufacturing.

Since inventing the microprocessor nearly 40 years ago, Intel has been the leader in both microprocessors and process scaling. Clearly this industry has many exciting developments ahead. I wonder what killer apps will make use of 4 nm parts?

(Editor's Note: Jack's Embedded Poll Question this week is " What will we see in 2022?" To vote go to the Embedded.com Home Page.

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at jack@ganssle.com. His website is www.ganssle.com.

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