THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
Maximum PC|August 2020
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
After more than a decade of dominance, Intel has fallen behind its main rival, AMD. Jeremy Laird investigates where Intel went wrong and how it will fight back
Jeremy Laird

WHAT, EXACTLY, has happened to Intel? The once unassailable leader in both PC processors and chip manufacturing generally now looks second-best by almost every conceivable technological metric. AMD’s CPUs appear cleverer. TSMC’s manufacturing technology seems more advanced. Intel, it seems, has completely lost its way.

Even in the mobile PC space, which Intel has absolutely owned for decades, AMD’s new Renoir APU has the edge. Likewise, how is it that AMD has offered PCI Express 4.0 on desktop PCs for a year, but Intel hasn’t even announced future support for what is a crucial highspeed interconnect?

Things are so bad that Apple is said to be planning to ditch Intel in favor of its own ARM-based processors. Worse, Intel itself is rumored to be considering TSMC as a manufacturing partner for selected future products, including its first consumer graphics card in decades. Truly, that would be the ultimate humiliation.

Or would it? Last year, despite those issues, Intel enjoyed record revenues of $72 billion. In fact, in pure commercial terms Intel’s main problem has been keeping up with demand for its chips from so-called hyperscalers. That’s the likes of Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Facebook et al, who simply can’t get enough of Intel’s Xeon processors. Meanwhile, there are good reasons to think that Intel will soon be back on track when it comes to both chip manufacturing and CPU architectures.

WHAT SINGLE thing summarizes Intel’s woes? Try “10nm.” Chip production technology isn’t Intel’s only failing—a strong case could also be made for the company becoming ever more complacent over the past decade when it comes to CPU architectures—but 10nm? What a disaster.

By 10nm, of course, we mean a specific production process or node used to manufacture computer chips. The measurement 10nm refers, in theory, to the size of the smallest features inside the chip. In practice, the monikers attached to production processes and the actual size of components like transistor gates inside a PC processor have become somewhat estranged in recent years. There probably isn’t any individual feature that actually measures 10nm within a “10nm” Intel CPU.

That arguable lack of direct correlation between feature size and the description of a given node becomes even more problematic when it comes to comparing process technologies from competing manufacturers. But more on that in a moment. For now, what matters is that 10nm is Intel’s latest production process and surely its most troubled. Originally, 10nm was due to arrive way back in 2015. Here, in the second half of 2020, 10nm still only makes up a small minority of Intel’s production. You can’t buy a 10nm desktop or server CPU from Intel. Only mobile processors for laptops and tablets have moved to 10nm, and even then just some of Intel’s low and ultra-low-power range have moved to 10nm. Others have been refreshed on 14nm.

The context for all this—the self-imposed metric by which Intel can unambiguously be said to have fallen short—is Moore’s Law. For the uninitiated, Moore’s Law is the assumption that computer chips either double in complexity or halve in cost—or some mix of the two, depending on your objectives— every couple of years. It dates back to observations made between 1958 and 1965 by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore. It has since proven remarkably prescient. At least it did until the last decade, when the first signs emerged that chip engineers were beginning to bump up against the laws of physics.

But the wider trials and tribulations of semiconductor manufacturing—as individual transistors approach the size of a handful of atoms and begin to suffer from arcane quantum effects such as tunnelling—are a story for another day and another feature. It’s the specifics of Intel’s 10nm process that matter for now.

Very likely, Intel’s problems boil down to a combination of over-ambition, the end of the line for a certain manufacturing technology, and, just maybe, complacency and a lack of investment. According to Intel CEO Bob Swan, Intel’s problems with 10nm are “somewhat a function of what we’ve been able to do in the past, which in essence was defying the odds. At a time when it was getting harder and harder, we set a more and more aggressive goal. From that, it just took us longer.”

CHIP AMBITIONS

For the 10nm node, that aggressive goal means improving transistor density by a factor of 2.7. In other words, for a given area of processor die area, the 10nm node contains 2.7 times as many transistors as the previous 14nm node. If it’s more numbers you want, the 14nm process clocks in at 37.5 million transistors per square millimeter, while the 10nm node achieves just over 100 million by the same metric. That dramatic advance in density makes 10nm demonstrably more aggressive than other recent node transitions from Intel. The 2.5 times step from 22nm to 14nm was quite impressive, but 32nm to 22nm represented a density improvement of 2.1 times, while 45nm to 32nm was pegged at 2.3 times.

Comprehension of these variable density improvements helps to explain the aforementioned difficulty comparing production nodes from competing manufacturers. By way of example, Intel’s 10nm density of 100.8 million transistors per square millimeter is actually slightly superior to the 96.5 million transistors achieved by rival manufacturer TSMC’s initial 7nm node (TSMC claims 113.9MTr/ mm2 for its refined 7nm node). All three of Samsung’s 7nm nodes also come in at slightly under the 100 million mark.

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August 2020