IBM helps GlobalFoundries ramp New York foundry

How long before GloFo buys Big Blue's fabs?

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GlobalFoundries has begun baking chips at Fab 8 in upstate New York, and is doing so for none other than semiconductor process partner IBM.

Fab 8, when it is fully ramped, will be able to kick out 60,000 wafers per month from its 300,000 square feet of space and etch them with 32 nanometer HKMG processes. That ramp is now expected in the second half of this year, a bit faster than the original early 2013 date from a year and a half ago when the fab upgrade plan was announced by ATIC.

The Fab 8 plant in Malta, New York, about 175 miles north of New York City, etches chips on 300mm silicon wafers, just like IBM's plant in East Fishkill, which is 68 miles north of the Big Apple. Fab 8 was targeted to have 28 nanometer processes in production in 2012, so it is a bit odd that GlobalFoundries is bragging about having IBM's 32 nanometer, silicon-on-insulator processes running instead.

This is not the same process that IBM uses to etch its own Power7 processors – that's a 45 nanometer copper/SOI process, which allowed IBM to cram 1.2 billion transistors onto an eight-core die with 32MB of embedded DRAM (eDRAM) as L3 cache memory. The 32 nanometer shrink of the copper/SOI process was co-developed with GlobalFoundries, Samsung, Infineon Technologies, and STMicroelectronics in conjunction with the University at Albany's College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, part of the New York state university system.

GlobalFoundries Fab 8

GlobalFoundries' Fab 8 plant in Malta, New York

After taking it on the chin for being the cause of AMD not being able to ship its "Interlagos" Opteron 6200 and "Valencia" Opteron 4200 processors on time, or in high enough volumes using its 32 nanometer processes in its Fab 1 plant in Dresden, Germany, GlobalFoundries is looking for some good news on the process front.

AMD spun out its chip manufacturing operations to Advanced Technology Investment Company (ATIC), the investment arm of the government of Abu Dhabi, in October 2008, which called the wafer baker GlobalFoundries. In July 2009, GlobalFoundries broke ground on the $4.2bn chip plant in Malta, a few months later ATIC shelled out $3.9bn to acquire Chartered Semiconductor, and in June 2010 ATIC said it would pump another $2.8bn into its various fabs to get more business for the eight plants it operates.

IBM and AMD/GlobalFoundries have collaborated on 65 nanometer and 45 nanometer development, not so much because they like each other but because no one but Intel is rich enough in the chip racket to do fundamental process research and development by itself any more. IBM and what it calls the Joint Development Alliance (the companies mentioned above) are working on a 28 nanometer technology that uses high K metal gate add-ons and will eventually pushing chip wires down to smaller scales. Intel is already ramping up 22 nanometer Tri-Gate processes and looks to continue its substantial process lead.

As El Reg reported last November, New York state governor Andrew Cuomo convinced IBM and its partners to spend $3.6bn upgrading their fabs to 22 nanometer and 14 nanometer nodes and got Intel, IBM, GlobalFoundries, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp, and Samsung Electronics to collectively spend $400m to work on the development of 450mm wafer technology.

Landing a 450mm fab in New York would be a serious coup for New York, given that it would cost on the order of $10bn. But most of that money will go for the equipment to make the chips, not for construction of the plant, so the money doesn't really stick in the state anyway.

IBM's statement about Fab 8 said that the chips that are coming out of Fab 8 using 32 nanometer SOI tech were being produced last year at its own East Fishkill facility and sport eDRAM. IBM added that the chips would be "used by manufacturers in networking, gaming, and graphics," which probably means that GlobalFoundries is not etching Power7+ or System z mainframe engines.

The 18-core PowerPC A2 processors used in the BlueGene/Q massively parallel supercomputers is currently implemented in 45 nanometer processes like the Power7, and includes eDRAM on the chip for L2 cache much as the Power7 does for L3 cache. It could be that IBM's shrink to Power7+, which will be based on 32 nanometer processors, is being tested for dual-fabbing by Big Blue, or a PowerPC A2+ kicker is being tested. There could be another kicker to the Power and Cell derivatives that IBM has sold to Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo for their game consoles, too. The chip, or chips, that GloFo is baking for IBM are a mystery. IBM did not return calls for comment on what chips are being made at Fab 8.

The real question is when does IBM pull a PC or printer maneuver and just sell its Microelectronics division to ATIC and get out of chip fabbing altogether? If IBM agreed to keep doing primary semiconductor research with its partners and GlobalFoundries could demonstrate that it could ramp these technologies faster (or at least as fast) as IBM could itself, then new IBM CEO Ginni Rometty could probably get a few billion bucks for the fab, take a few billion bucks of future investment off the books, and move a whole lot of employees over to GlobalFoundries.

IBM did not return a request for comment. ®

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