What Intel said and showed

Intel has been publishing research for about a decade on what they call “3D Trigate” transistors, which held out the hope for both improved performance as well as power efficiency. Today Intel revealed details of its commercialization of this research in its upcoming 22 nm process as well as demonstrating actual systems based on 22 nm CPU parts.

The new products, under the internal name of “Ivy Bridge”, are the process shrink of the recently announced Sandy Bridge architecture in the next “Tock” cycle of the famous Intel “Tick-Tock” design methodology, where the “Tick” is a new optimized architecture and the “Tock” is the shrinking of this architecture onto then next generation semiconductor process.

What makes these Trigate transistors so innovative is the fact that they change the fundamental geometry of the semiconductors from a basically flat “planar” design to one with more vertical structure, earning them the description of “3D”. For users the concepts are simpler to understand – this new transistor design, which will become the standard across all of Intel’s products moving forward, delivers some fundamental benefits to CPUs implemented with them:

  • Leakage current is reduced to near zero, resulting in very efficient operation for system in an idle state.
  • Power consumption at equivalent performance is reduced by approximately 50% from Sandy Bridge’s already improved results with its 32 nm process.

No further details on schedules were revealed beyond a delivery date sometime in 2012, although Intel did state that parts are coming off early production runs now for partners.

In addition to the conventional CPU parts for desktops, laptops and servers, Intel also discussed their plans for enhancing Atom CPU offerings with SOC designs and design services for system vendors making products targeted for consumer, netbook, tablet, and Smartphone designs. The announcement included a detailed chronology of upcoming SOC products in 32 nm and 22 nm processes, which Intel claimed would offer performance per Watt equal to or superior to that of ARM processors.

What it means

The first thing that jumps out at me is the is the implication that Moores Law is alive and well, at least for the next several generations of process down to 14 nm and below, and Intel has no intention of yielding primacy as the world’s leader in semiconductor process. Given their history and their willingness to invest, this announcement looks like their position is secure.

Another theme that came through loud and clear was Intel’s focus on low-power devices, SOC designs and pre-empting competition from ARM-based and similar low-power microprocessor products, which while they may not be a reality yet in the server space, have been an inhibiting factor in Intel’s success in low-power devices, with the exception of Atom-based NetBooks. With a forthright discussion of its SOC plans, Intel was clearly laying out reinforcement for earlier statements about wanting to be more visible in the various low-power device segments.

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