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Intel digs deep to keep Moore's Law alive

Agam Shah | March 29, 2017
Intel is changing the way it measures process technology advancements in a bid to hang on to Moore's Law.

Stacy Smith, Intel

The landmark Moore's Law observation, which is now more than 50 years old, keeps shapeshifting as the physical challenges of making smaller chips mounts.

Many scientists agree that Moore's Law is dying, but Intel is clinging on to it for dear life. It has been Intel's guiding light for making chips smaller, faster and cheaper.

Now, Intel is changing the way it measures process technology advancements, which will help the company continue to boast about hitting key Moore's Law metrics in terms of economics and the shrinking of chip sizes.

Primarily, the company is changing the way it measures logic transistor density, using a wider cell width. 

"Moore's Law is not dead, at least not for us," said Stacy Smith, Intel's executive vice president leading manufacturing, operations and sales, during an event to talk about manufacturing in San Francisco on Tuesday.

At its heart, Moore's Law states that the cost of making chips goes down while the capabilities go up. Intel's interpretation of Moore's Law has changed multiple times. Initially, Intel was doubling transistors every 18 months, which then expanded to two years. On its most recent 14-nanometer process, that time line expanded to three years.

With the new measurements, Intel will be able to boast that its manufacturing improvements are surpassing Moore's Law. The company also said it would cut the manufacturing cost per transistor by half with each new manufacturing process, which is in line with Moore's Law. 

But there are caveats to the new metrics. Intel is making multiple changes and introducing more chip architectures on each manufacturing process, and advancing to new processes at a slower pace.

Later this year, Intel will start making chips using the 10-nm process, which is being projected to last for roughly three years. After that the company will move to 7-nm, and Smith said there is "visibility" to the 5-nm process.

Rival fabs are now catching up with Intel, which had a manufacturing advantage for more than a decade. Samsung is making 10-nm chips for mobile devices, with one example being Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 -- though Intel says its latest 14-nm chips are as good as the 10-nm chips from Samsung and GlobalFoundries.

Intel's reformulation of Moore's Law metrics is an attempt by the company to make up for lost time and a messy move to the 14-nm process from the previous 22-nm process, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64, who was at the Tuesday event.

Manufacturing issues on 14-nm in early 2014 meant Intel couldn't achieve the cost or transistor density it wanted. As the 14-nm process matured, Intel started hitting those metrics, and had to press the restart button on its Moore's Law projections. Chip advances have also contributed to reconsideration of the metrics.


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