Michael Paulraj
Friday, November 30, 2007
When Intel Corporation, the world leader in silicon innovation, launched in November a new high-end desktop processor named the Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9650 quad core processor, it marked two great events in the history of semiconductor microprocessors: First, it was the world’s first 45nm Hi-k desktop processor; second, it was a highly significant advance in the history of transistors that began in 1947 in the
Bell Labs.

A great leap ahead

The new 45 nanometer (a human hair is 90,000 nm thick) processors have a transistor density of about 820 million transistors for quad-core processors using Intel’s new formula, while the previous 65 nm processor – Intel Core 2 Duo – had close to 300 million transistors. When Intel introduced its first microprocessor, the 4004 (an incredibly simple device by present standards), in 1971, it was 1/8 of an inch by 1/16 of an inch and contained just 2,000 transistors.

The new set of 16 processors use Intel’s latest Hafnium-based high-k metal gate (Hi-k) formula for the millions of transistors inside the processors. These processors, Intel Core 2 Extreme and Xeon, are also the first to be manufactured on the company’s 45 nm manufacturing process. The new processor lowers power consumption and enhances performance. The breakthrough enables Intel to make products 25 percent smaller, and hence cheaper, than the previous versions and pursue the ultra mobile and consumer electronics ‘system on chip’

“The intellects, physics and designs that went into solving one of the industry’s most daunting challenges are awe-inspiring
and I congratulate the Intel teams for
this breakthrough achievement,” said
R Ravichandran, Director - Sales, Intel South Asia.

A new experience for PC users

However, what does this mean to the computer industry? Faster and slimmer low-cost computers, increased battery life and higher energy efficiency are the very obvious gains. With the new processor, which is a part of the “Penryn” family of next-generation Intel Core 2 and Xeon families of processors, the persistent problems of heat generation on transistors and current leakage have been optimally reduced, breaking the barrier to make transistors smaller and drive the advancement of Moore’s Law that forecast that the number of transistors on a chip will double roughly every year (revised to every two years, a decade later) in the future.

Mark Bohr, Scientist and Senior Fellow, Technology and Manufacturing Group, and Director, Process Architecture and Integration, Intel Corporation claimed in January 2006 while talking about the new 45 nm technology, “Intel scientists have completed a big step toward manufacturing the smallest and fastest chips yet. The breakthrough is expected to lead to better PCs and laptops, but it will also inspire next-generation handheld devices.”

The new technology delivers more of the energy and speed that the server-side business applications, hardcore gamers, and media buffs demand. The desktop performance is brought to ‘extreme’ new levels with a larger L2 cache and support for new Intel SSE4 media instructions. The new Intel technology will inject the energy to transform the present low-quality online video into smooth-running pictures that may become high-quality screen-size images in near future.

Progress of the processor technology

The semiconductor chip that contains the transistors is the heart of the microprocessor technology. The chip design has come a long way since 1969 when Intel developed the first PMOS (p-type metal-oxide-semiconductor) silicon gate transistor technology.

Intel introduced the first microprocessor, the 4004, in 1971. It had 2,000 transistors.

Intel’s 16-bit 8088 processor of 1978 had 29,000 transistors and catapulted the sale of IBM’s new product in 1981, the IBM PC. The processor ushers Intel
into the ranks of the Fortune 500 companies.

The first multi-tasking processor, the Intel 1386 released in 1985, had 275,000 transistors, more than a hundred times as many as the original 4004. The processor helped bring the computer gradually within the reach of common man.

Intel’s 486 and Motorola’s 68040 in 1990 had
1.2 million transistors, a 500-fold increase in complexity over the original 4004.

The Intel Pentium Processor of 1993 had three million transistors and helped the spread of the World Wide Web, the Internet, which had just become a reality.

The nanometer technology began in 2002 with the introduction of Intel’s 90 nm process technology that brought out higher-performance, lower-power transistors.

“Our objective is to bring consumers a new class of computers delivering a full Internet experience in ever-smaller, more portable form factors,” now says a beaming Ravichandran who presided over the function in which the 45 nm processor was released.

The first microprocessors were crude 4-bit devices. They were designed as logic-replacement devices and not for personal computers. The 8-bit microprocessors came in the mid 1970s, and these were still designed for logic replacement. They got a bit more sophisticated but had very unrefined instruction sets, e.g., no multiply or divide instructions. The incremental growth led in 1979 to 16-bit microprocessors that had much more complex instruction sets: intricate addressing modes, multiply and divide instructions, and a lot of data types. The earliest 32-bit microprocessors began appearing in 1983, with even more complexity.

Partnership and competition

Partnerships and competition are two aspects that are deeply embedded in the global business environment. Intel has an ongoing partnership with Apple that uses Intel’s x86 architecture in its computers. Apple began using Intel CPUs for its computers in January 2006 and had all its computers running on Intel chips by August 2006.

Intel’s plan to manufacture 45 nm processors in three of its plants, in addition to the three that will continue to build 65 nm processors – all capable of using 300 mm wafers - places AMD (Advanced Micro Devices), the company’s former partner and main rival, in a difficult situation. AMD is the world’s second largest supplier of x86-based processors and presently the third largest supplier of graphics cards and GPUs.

Asked about AMD’s claim that the Barcelona quad-core CPU will beat the performance of Intel’s quad-core technology Paul Otellini, Intel CEO, responded by saying “I am quite comfortable we will maintain a performance lead.” Being only one tenth the size of Intel, AMD relies heavily on IBM, its business partner and pins its hopes on its updated Barcelona ‘true’ quad-core technology. Motorola is also in the race.

An achievement of fundamental importance

The high-k (Hi-k) metal gate transistors are purportedly the biggest advancement in transistor technology since the introduction of polysilicon gate MOS transistors in the late 1960’s.

No break-through or progress is achieved without matching effort. This is true of Intel’s 45 nm processor as well. This high capacity microprocessor is the result of years of sustained research by the company that has pioneered many a development in the sphere of microprocessor technology. The latest achievement of the world’s largest semiconductor company that takes pride in being the inventor of the x86 series of microprocessors that power many PCs is fully justified.

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