NSA runs best fab in world

Forget Dresden, Chandler or Leixlip

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Focus on Fabs You might think that AMD's Dresden fab is state-of-the-art technology. You might also suspect that Intel and IBM have some pretty nifty technology too, lurking in their clean rooms and in their labs.

And you might be right as far as the commercial world goes. But there's a fab, owned by the US government, and run by the National Security Agency (NSA), which is supposed to knock them into a cocked hat.

Check out this blurb on the NSA's own Web site, for example: "Your work may also take you into our microelectronics fabrication facility that includes a 20,000-sq.-ft. "Class 10" clean room. It is here where we are redefining the limits of an array of groundbreaking technologies, everything from electron beam maskmaking and "direct write" wafer lithography, to wafer fabrication and testing, and more."

Is this true? A class 10 fab is actually inferior to many commercial fabs -- perhaps the NSA has 'very secret squirrel fabs' it doesn't talk about. There's some debate about this -- some of our readers say that it all depends on the size of particles per square foot.

As one reader writes: "The class designation is supposed to indicate how many particles exist inside the fab per cubic foot of air (yes feet, I wish it was metric...). The problem is nobody ever tells you what size those ten particles are, or the one particle Intel is saying their Class 1 fab has.  And of course the particle size is just as important as the number."

We are told by another reader that the NSA fabs are run by our old chums at NatSemi, who don't have a particularly brilliant record of innovation.

One mole tells us that silicon designs constantly suffer from Merced-style lateness...

And if you can lay your hands on a copy of The Puzzle Palace, by James Bamford, you'll see the NSA has been at it for decades, a fact underlined by what the organisation says itself:

The NSA says: "Our early interest in cryptanalytic research, for instance, resulted in our being one of the inventors of the computer. Our efforts in advancing flexible storage capabilities led to the development of the tape cassette. Our groundbreaking development of integrated circuits is legendary. This trend is even stronger today. What does this mean for your NSA career? Everything."

But if you thought Intel was paranoid, compared to the NSA it is only suffering from an irritating obsessional neurosis. To penetrate the "acres" of computer hardware underground, you have to first get a job at the NSA.

And we suspect that the terms and conditions of this particular employer would make one of Intel's or AMD's non disclosure agreements (NDAs) resemble not a paper tiger, but more a paper pussycat.

The NSA says that it is working on a range of "exhilarating challenges" including special purpose computers, pattern recognition technologies, optics and a range of other communication devices.

It has software "years ahead of current commercial technology" (Windows 3000? Nope, it's Linux) and it's a "veritable fantasyland" for computer science.

You can apply for a job with the NSA here. ®

See also

Intel's 12-incher starts to throb Chandler, Arizona


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