Both Intel and IBM have announced new microprocessor technologies, with IBM promising faster microprocessors soon and Intel stating that chips will keep getting faster and cheaper in the future.
IBM's new process technology called CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) 9S is actually a combination of several chip-building techniques, said Russ Lange, an IBM fellow and chief technologist.
"Three years ago, when we put in copper, people said we don't need that, that it's not necessary yet, but now they're desperately scrambling for it," he said. IBM moved from aluminum wiring to copper in order to reduce resistance as the width of the wiring shrank. CMOS 9S coats the copper wiring with an insulation technology called SiLK -- silicon low-k dielectric -- mounting the assembly onto what Lange called the smallest channel-length silicon-on-insulator (SOI) transistors in production.
The first commercial products with this .13-micron process technology are scheduled to ship early next year. "This technology will be the fastest CMOS technology in production in the world," Lange said.
Meanwhile, Intel announced on Monday it has built a 0.03 microns-wide CMOS transistor when it presented a paper at the International Electron Devices Meeting (IEDM) in San Francisco.
While IBM's chips will move into production next year, the new Intel transistor won't reach market until 2005, said Gerald Marcyk, director of components research at Intel. "We're showing the results of the smallest and fastest transistors," he said. "This is two generations beyond the fastest computers now."
The announcement validates the continuation of Moore's Law for chipmakers, which states that every 18 months, microchip processing power doubles. "There's a lot of talk about Moore's Law, that there's a wall," Marcyk said. "But there is a growing consensus that what lays beyond CMOS is more silicon."
Finding the way to the next iteration of processor chips takes the kind of money that companies lacking the resources of Intel and IBM have trouble mustering. "It's not the cost for the chip – it's the cost to invest in these new technologies and to build the factories," said Linley Gwenapp, an analyst from the Linley Group. "What you're seeing is the second tier companies forming alliances to compete, and the third-tier companies are, essentially, just giving up, and outsourcing their production."
These research and production costs are part of the reason Intel and other chipmakers continue to invest strongly in advancing existing technology without radical redesign. "One of the concerns is, if you had to radically change the technology, it would add significant cost to the process," said Marcyk. As Moore's Law kicks in, "we get twice the performance – but only about a 20 per cent increase in cost. We actually re-use most of the equipment."
For chip consumers -- the makers of computers and consumer electronics - the end result has been cheaper, faster processors, and new applications for those processors. "All of this is encouraging for all of those who are sitting around wondering if CMOS will hit a wall," Lange said. "I think the question will be how will this affect society. I don't see any limits. It's gone from the era of impacting banks and big business and General Motors to a daily impact on 10-year-olds and grandfathers."
Faster chips require less electrical power, meaning batteries will last longer or can be made smaller as well, he said. IBM plans to use the new chips in pervasive-computing products, like mobile phones, and in servers.
Intel predicts there will be 10GHz processors in five years, capable of real-time speech translation. Today's fastest Pentium 4 chips on the market run at 1.5GHz.
Improvements in processor power will drive other component makers to proportionately advance technology in order to take best advantage of new chips, analysts say.
"If you're a PC manufacturer, you're saying, 'make processors faster, make processors faster,' but from the server side, it's more important to have a balanced system," said Jean Bozman, a server analyst for the research firm International Data Corp. Input-output speed, networking bandwidth and other systems will have to match the processor's speed in order to avoid the creation of a data bottleneck, she said.
But other computer component's potential shortcomings won't slow the drive toward faster processors.
"Intel is validating that they can continue on the Moore's Law path," said Jim Handy, a chief analyst at research firm Dataquest. "Intel is going to be able to continue to lower the price, and the world will follow them there." IDC is owned by IDG, the parent company of Digit.