Intel goes on with 90 nanometre

Intel Corp. will begin making chips in volume on its 90-nanometre (.09 micron) manufacturing process next year, and it’s betting that customers are ready.

Intel’s current Pentium 4 processors are made using a .13 micron process. The size of the process refers to the width of the smallest wire on the chip. As the process width shrinks, more transistors can be placed on the chip. The transistors themselves will only be 50 nanometres in length, which makes them the smallest CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) transistors currently in production.

Mark Bohr, Boston-based Intel fellow and director of process architecture and integration, said Intel has already developed SRAM (static RAM) chips based on the process, and will be the first to go into volume production on the process next year.

Intel has been using the 90-nanometre process to make 52M-byte SRAM chips at Intel’s fabrication plant (fab) in Hillsboro, Ore. All chips made using the 90-nanometre process will come from 300-millimetre wafers, the first for an entire chip line, Bohr said. The Oregon fab will be the first to go into volume production of 90-nanometre process chips, followed by Intel’s New Mexico and Ireland plants sometime in 2003, Bohr said. Intel’s forthcoming Prescott chip will be the first product made on the 90-nanometre process that has been announced, but work is underway on several other chips using the process, he said.

Doug Cooper, country manager for Intel of Canada Ltd., said the new chips demonstrate Moore’s Law in motion, adding that the Canadian business environment is flexible enough to transition to faster Itanium 2 processor-based servers and workstations. Cooper said Intel is “happy with customer uptake” and is a firm believer that Canadian companies have embraced the open architecture model, and that demand for new circuits should pick up.

Moore’s Law looks likely to hold for some time, said David Freund, analyst with Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata Inc. As long as there’s a demand for multi-processor servers, there will be a demand for more powerful processors, Fruend said.

“Intel’s fabrication-process development is also about reducing power consumption and heat, not just circuit performance. In fact, Intel usually uses a new process first for its mobile chips,” Freund said. “But in this case, Intel wants to phase out the mobile Pentium 4 and concentrate on ramping up Banias, which is planned to debut early next year on a 0.13-micron process. Mobile computers are not the only place where power and heat matter, so we can expect to see 90-nanometre Xeon processors for blade servers.”

But companies are not going to automatically jump on every new chip that comes along, said Alan Freedman, Toronto-based research manager for infrastructure hardware with Toronto-based analyst firm IDC Canada. Freedman noted that application performance is a key driver of 64-bit server adoption.

“It’s not as if companies are going to scrap everything they have and transfer all of their systems,” Freedman said, adding that companies will most likely switch on an incremental basis. “If companies are in the market, they may be swayed based on application performance, but it’s not absolutely necessary to move to the latest technology.” Freedman noted that the new chip will no doubt be more efficient and affordable, but won’t necessarily spur intense growth in the server market.

“If you take a look at Pentium 4, while they are selling a lot, it didn’t really spur the market…as normal replacement cycles come up people move to the next generation or processor. We are seeing a movement in that sense,” Freedman said.

Martin Reynolds, research fellow at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Dataquest said Intel is spending US$5 billion in capital investment this year alone.

“Intel knows that its future is dependent on continuing to deliver higher performance from the processor. They may be wrong in the assumption, but they’re going to keep going with that bet – they’ve made it in the past and it has paid off,” Reynolds said. In the market for powerful servers and workstations, Reynolds said Intel strong focus on 64-bit Itanium should make some inroads into a space where Sun Microsystems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM Corp. currently reside.

“At the moment we are not seeing applications that are really taxing these processors,” Reynolds said, adding that the processors are running six months to a year ahead of the software market. “But in creating that gap, they also create the opportunity for software to appear that actually will tax the processors. Having that technology out there creates the vacuum that draws opportunity in.”

    with files from IDG News Service