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45 nanometers, the new frontier of processors

45 nanometers, the new frontier of processors

The race to miniaturize chips is now very close to reaching a new milestone, 45 nanometers, which will allow manufacturers to extend the life of the now famous Moore’s Law. Among the giants that are driving this new technological evolution are Intel and IBM, which in recent days have revealed new details on their respective 45-nanometer technologies.

For both Intel and IBM, the move to 45nm will represent a significant cut with the past : the two companies will in fact make use of new materials to be used in place of those used for over 30 years in the production of chips. This result represents a major step forward in an effort to reduce current leakage in transistors, a problem increasingly felt by chip makers as chip density increases.

According to Moore’s Law, the number of transistors placed on a chip doubles approximately every two years, leading to an increase in features and performance and a reduction in transistor cost. To maintain this pace of innovation, transistors must reach smaller and smaller sizes. With current materials, however, the possibility of further miniaturizing transistors clashes with insurmountable physical limits , mostly related to the emergence of problems related to increasing energy consumption and heat generation as dimensions reach atomic levels. Consequently, to secure the future of Moore’s Law and the economics of the information age, manufacturers believe it is imperative to implement new materials and new transistor structures.

While conducting their research independently, Intel and IBM have developed not dissimilar technological solutions: in fact, both will use metal gate transistors which will take the place of the classic polysilicon gates, and a new insulating material , with high-k properties (with a high constant k, i.e. capable of retaining a greater number of electrical charges), replacing silicon dioxide. For the moment neither of the two competitors has revealed the identity of its new high-k material.

Transistors are microscopic silicon switches that process the sequences of ones and zeros of the digital world. The gate turns the transistor on and off, while the gate dielectric, the component where the new high-k materials will be used, is an insulator placed under the gate that controls the flow of electric current. Overall, the new gate and dielectric materials make it possible to drastically reduce current leakage, while also reducing absorbed energy and heat generation. According to Intel, its new high-k material reduces current leakage by more than 100 times compared to the silicon dioxide used in the last thirty years.

Intel claims it is closer than anyone else to the 45nm milestone, and has unveiled it to prove it new Penryn prototypes , code name of the first Core 2 chip produced with 45nm technology. Penryn will be behind the next generation of Core 2 and Xeon processors dedicated to servers, desktops and notebooks.

The move to 45nm will allow Intel to integrate up to 12 MB of cache and push the clock beyond 3 GHz: all this by reducing the thermal design power (TDP) from the current 65 watts of the mid-high power models to 50 watts. Penryn will contain approximately 200 million transistors for each core and will include the new SSE4 extended instruction set.

Penryn, whose launch on the market is scheduled for the second half of 2007, will be part of the platform now known in code as Montevina: it is a new generation of Centrino whose introduction on the market should take place at the beginning of 2008.

Together with AMD, of which it is a technology partner, IBM plans to finalize the new manufacturing process early next year. The first 45nm AMD processors they should instead arrive around mid-2008 and use immersion lithography, which among other things allows to increase chip yields. Big Blue’s partners in developing new chip manufacturing technologies also include Sony and Toshiba, co-developers of the Cell processor.

While IBM has not yet publicly shown 45nm processor prototypes, the behemoth says these are already being run in some test systems.

A technical insight into Intel’s 45nm technology was posted here by HotHardware.com.