Business, Hardware

Intel Atom(ic) future revealed: 14 32nm SOC chips


Intel is stepping outside their comfort zone of only using the Intel Architecture (IA) and adding customer developed IP [Intellectual Property] to enhance functionality. Intel signed an MOU [memo of understanding] with TSMC in March to develop customer driven IP integrated with Intel’s Architecture.

Sunit Rikhi, VP and General Manager of Intel's Technology and Manufacturing GroupSumit Rikhi, VP and General Manager of Technology and Manufacturing Group, discussed the process of building specialty 32nm processors. Intel’s new-to-them building block approach has the ability to choose optimum points to add transistors, rather than the traditional approach of having discreet points on a curve.

Rikhi said that there are now co-optimization decision from the chip definition through manufacturing. The design team includes process people and packaging people along with manufacturing.

Rikhi said that this is very different than the traditional "silo approach" of each phase not considering how their decisions impacted another part of the process.

This new approach is the basic building block of Intel’s 32nm SoC [System-on-Chip] that can scale from multi-CPU server processors on down to very low power, smartphone products. The new approach enables a fully featured SoC with a variety of options to enable optimized silicon integration of diverse system components. Design decisions about IC (Integrated Circuit) transistor support, logic transistor, metals, embedded memory, basic analog features, and advanced mixed signal RF are all thrown into the recipe for the 32nm SoC.

Rikhi said that circuit innovation causes digital content to replace analog mixed signal content. Circuits in third generation 32nm SoCs include more digital ICs due to scaling. Rikhi said that mixed signal circuits are first to run into negative surprises of physics. He said that with the surprises physics throws at them, engineers must make forward thinking decisions during negative surprises, and use any good surprises to mitigate the effect.

Intel's feature choice list for the 32nm SoC product line
Rikhi showed the feature choice list for the 32nm SoC product line.

The entire semiconductor industry is always struggling with the heat of chips, which increases exponentially as the number of transistors increases. Rikhi said that in the second half of 2007, Intel went into production of HkMG [High-k/Metal Gate] transistor technology with 45nm chips. Leakage control via new High-k materials is one of many steps toward making transistors run cooler. Intel will carry this design forward into their 32nm SoC.

Rikhi said that Intel has been a leader in lead free packing with the 45nm introduction of sn/ag/cu [tin silver copper]  solder and cu [copper] bump between the package and the chip.

With 32nm, Intel offers multiple chip packages for adoption into greater number of platforms
With 32nm, Intel offers multiple chip packages for adoption into greater number of platforms

Intel says they have fourteen Smart SoCs in the development-through-manufacturing stages. Rikhi discussed some of the learning curve for the mixed signal IC part of development. Mixed signal IC designs are a key factor for the embedded market. He said that some mixed signal ICs that exist as analog don’t scale as well as digital, but it does scale.

Four mobile platforms will meet 14 SoC chips
Intel’s plan for 2010 and 2011: four platforms targeting three major markets and 14 32nm SoCs…

Rikhi summed up the future of Intel’s 32nm SoC manufacturing which is to integrate customer IP and have a smooth new product flow. He specifically said there will be a 32nm version of the Atom (know as "Medfield," which rumors say will ship in 2011). But bear in mind that Intel will first test the waters with a 45nm part named Tunnel Creek, which we revealed couple of weeks ago.

Last Friday, Taiwan’s Digitimes claimed that Intel would not accept any more orders for the Atom Z processor. On Tuesday, Intel spokesperson, Suzy Ramirez said:"Rumors of ‘industry sources’ stating that Intel is no longer taking orders for Atom Z processors or ending production by end of year are 100% inaccurate."

There had been rumors in early July that the Atom Pine Trail SoC was going to be delayed. Last week, Intel’s Mooly Eden stopped that rumor at the Intel Technology Conference.

Dr. Jon Peddie of Jon Peddie Research in Tiburon, CA said: "The Atom roadmap is unaltered, and seemingly unstoppable as Intel continues to innovate with the tiny processor." Peddie added: "The next step is to bring out the fully integrated Pineview processor later this year which will have the memory controller and graphics processor in it."
Atom’s main competitor is the ARM Cortex-A8, a multi-core IP announced last fall. The Qualcomm Snapdragon version is running at 1GHz and is supposed to power quite a few smartbooks [Intel calls them netbooks – is that a grave mistake, equaling ARM-powered chips with Intel Atom ones? Ed.] that will be arriving in time for Christmas.

Smartbooks aren’t the only place where ARM Cortex-A8 is finding its home: The Toshiba TG01 smartphone has a 1GHz Snapdragon, a 4.1 inch WVGA display, and plenty of memory capacity. Samsung Electronics Co. and Intrinsity Inc. just announced their  "Hummingbird" which they claim they have the first ARM Cortex A8 that runs at 1GHz and delivers more than 2,000 Dhrystone MIPS.The Hummingbird could be a replacement for today’s Apple iPhone 3GS and the Palm Pre handsets using ARM Cortex A8 processors running at up to 600 MHz from Samsung and Texas Instruments respectively. Intel has yet to break into the smartphone arena with the Atom x86. That is supposed to change with the 32nm version.

Intel's hope for its System-on-Chip future: technology basis for its upcoming 32nm and 45nm processors
Intel’s hope for its System-on-Chip future: technology basis for its upcoming 32nm and 45nm processors

The Atom is a leading seller in the netbook/smartbook arena. Jon Peddie said: ?Intel is at the top of their game when it comes to semiconductor manufacturing.? Peddie continued: ?The company led the market into the 45nm phase and is now leading the market into the 32nm era. In addition to bragging point, that will help drive down costs and simultaneously improve performance.?