By Stacy Smith
We’ve heard a lot lately about Moore’s Law. Unfortunately, much of it wrong. Some say that Moore’s Law doesn’t matter anymore and that it’s just a technical issue or a race between a few giant companies. Others say it’s become too expensive to pursue any further except in a few specialized niches. Others say that it’s dead. Let’s set the record straight.
First, Moore’s Law matters. A lot.
Moore’s Law democratizes computing. It’s a pretty powerful law of economics: It says that by advancing semiconductor manufacturing capability at a regular cadence, we can bring down the cost of any business model that relies on computing. Imagine what would happen if other industries experienced innovation at the rate of Moore’s Law, i.e., a doubling of capability every two years. Car mileage would be so efficient by now that a car could drive the equivalent distance between the earth and the sun on a single gallon of gas. Agriculture productivity would be improved to a level that we could feed the planet on a square kilometer of land. As for space travel – by now we could be zooming at 300 times the speed of light.
Ultimately, these economics make Moore’s Law an essential driver of both the U.S. and global economies, enabling people to connect, play and learn. By improving compute capability year in and year out, innovators across the planet can economically apply computing cycles to address some of the world’s biggest problems and make lives better.
Second, in today’s world Moore’s Law can be delivered only by a few companies. Every new process node gets harder and therefore more expensive. Just putting the equipment in an existing fab shell can cost $7 billion. Realistically, that means there is expected to be continued consolidation in semiconductor manufacturing, as fewer companies can afford to move forward. Intel’s ability to advance Moore’s law – to make products less expensive and more capable every year – is our core competitive advantage.
Third, what Moore’s Law enables is not a race.
It is a cooperative undertaking to set a high standard across the industry, in which different companies have different areas of expertise. Intel’s role has been, and will continue to be, that of the technology leader driving Moore’s Law. Today we have about a three-year lead in process technology.
That leadership may not be obvious from the news. Sixteen nanometer, 14, 10, 7 – it looks like a horse race. The problem is that those figures, which are numbers that used to have real, physical meaning, no longer mean anything at all. There needs to be a metric that captures a process’ ability to deliver usable transistors to chip designers. Today Intel process guru Mark Bohr will describe just such a metric at our first-ever “Technology and Manufacturing Day” event.
That brings us to the big question: What about the end of Moore’s Law? We have seen that it won’t end from lack of benefits, and that progress won’t be choked off by economics. But what about physics? Doesn’t Moore’s Law say that eventually transistors will be smaller than atoms?
Yes, someday we may reach a physical limit. But we don’t see that point on our horizon. I remember in 1990, when the features on the wafer were the same size as the wavelength of the light we used to print them: 193 nm. Physics was very clear. We couldn’t go any further.
But we met that challenge. We printed with the interference fringes from the patterns on the masks. We developed computational lithography and multiple patterning. In retrospect, 193 nm wasn’t even a speed bump, and today we are doing 20 times better than that because of continued innovations like FinFET transistors and hyper scaling, which we implemented with our current 14 nm process. Today we’re talking more about further hyper scaling enhancements for our upcoming 10 nm process and how, thanks to this new process breakthrough, we continue to realize the same cost-per-million transistors.
How are we doing this? In historical Intel fashion we’ve continued to push through the barriers by identifying challenges, isolating them and solving them. Nearby, we see some specific challenges we must solve soon. That’s where we are today with 7 nm. Further out, we see challenges that might have several alternative solutions. We pursue them all until it is clear which will work best. We are always looking three generations – seven to nine years – ahead. Today we have line of sight to 7 and 5 nm. We may not know exactly which approaches will prove best for 5 nm yet, but our culture thrives on those challenges. It has for generations.
Our confidence about the future isn’t limited to process development alone. Today Intel’s Murthy Renduchintala will describe how our unique ability to design and manufacture under one roof lets us accelerate development in the advent of complexity to deliver leading products for our customers.
So, no, Moore’s Law is not ending at any time we can see ahead of us. We will continue to take new nodes into production, and to ready them for our growing community of foundry customers. In fact, today we are announcing a new foundry offering: an ultra-low-power 22 nm FinFET process. Our progress, our foundational role as industry and technology leader, and our part in making life better for people will go on for many years to come.
Stacy Smith is the executive vice president leading manufacturing, operations and sales for Intel Corporation.