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TSMC, IBM gang trumpet 28nm chip recipes

Will AMD throw in the fab?

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Chip maker Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company said this week that it will be rolling out two different 28 nanometer chip making processes in 2010. At the same time, IBM and its chip partners outlined their plans for competing 32 nanometer and 28 nanometer circuits. Transistor geeks are wallowing in the details of the TSMC and IBM announcements, and some are complaining there aren't more.

The effect of TSMC's announcements on IT departments is subtle, but the company was chosen as Sun Microsystems' foundry in February of this year for future generations of "Niagara" and "Rock" UltraSparc processors using 45 nanometer and smaller processes.

The Rock chips, now due in the second half of 2009, are being made by Texas Instruments, Sun's longtime foundry partner, using 65 nanometer processes. Texas Instruments quietly began exiting the foundry business in 2007 and is planning to use TSMC as its own foundry, and graphics chip and server chipset maker nVidia uses TSMC to make its chips too.

What TSMC said this week was that it would be offering customers the option of high-k/metal gate (HKMG) or silicon oxynitride (SiON) materials in its 28 nanometer processes, which it hopes to have in production in the first quarter of 2010.

TSMC had apparently hoped to get high-k metal gate technology into the field with its 32 nanometer processes, but according to this report in EE Times, that appears to no longer be the case. The chipheads over at Electronic Design News have some interesting things to say too.

The interesting bit, as far as server buyers are concerned, is that TSMC is saying that its 28 nanometer SiON process will have twice the transistor gate density as the current low-power variant of its 40 nanometer process, which provides much as 50 per cent more speed on the circuits or anywhere from 30 to 50 per cent less power consumption. But this one is aimed at chips used in cell phones, wireless devices, and other portable consumer devices.

The high performance 28 nanometer process uses the high-k/metal gate tech and is expected to go into production later (sometime in the first half of 2010). This process will have twice the gate density of TSMC's current high-end 40 nanometer processes and deliver about 30 per cent more performance for the circuits.

This 28HP process, as it is called, is the important one for the data center, since it is used for microprocessors, graphics chips, and field programmable gate arrays. And any server maker whose chips were counting on HKMG technology being available sooner in 32 nanometer processes from TSMC is going to have to take a hard look at their roadmaps.

Meanwhile, over at the Common Platform alliance being spearheaded by IBM's Microelectronics division, chip designer ARM and chip makers Chartered Semiconductor of Singapore and Samsung Electronics of South Korea have teamed with Big Blue to put a stick in TSMC's eye. They say they'll bring 32 nanometer and 28 nanometer processes to market using HKMG technology.

Sources at IBM say to expect 32 nanometer processes using HKMG to ramp in first half of 2009 and for 28 nanometer processes to ramp "shortly thereafter." ARM will be using these processes to make its future Cortex RISC chips, which will turn up in all kinds of embedded devices, and IBM will make variants of its PowerPC and Power family of processors. Intel will be ramping its own 32 nanometer processes in 2009 as well.

The big question is whether Advanced Micro Devices, which has partnered with the IBM-led group for some chip manufacturing technology development, will just throw in the fab and let Big Blue and its partners make the Opteron and Athlon processors that it designs. Obviously, if AMD closes down its fabs, TSMC is one potential partner, as is IBM, perhaps with Chartered as a backup fab just because you can't trust a single source.

The EDN trade rag reported three weeks ago that AMD was going to tell us all about its fab plans in two week, - including the sale of its Dresden, Germany plants. That hasn't happened yet. But it could. Maybe. ®

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