Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Moore’s Law Is Alive And Well, And Intel Will Prove It Today

Intel, the world’s biggest manufacturer of computer chips, and by far the one with the most advanced manufacturing capabilities, is holding a big event in San Francisco which it described in an invitation to reporters as its “most significant technology announcement of the year.” It provided no further details.

This appears to be the announcement that CEO Paul Otellini alluded to during Intel’s quarterly earnings conference call last month. Intel has kept a pretty tight lid on the details, but I’ve talked to enough people who say this is one of those times when Intel will “open the kimono” on what will be going on inside its chip factories–or fabs–later this year. The big news will revolve around Intel’s disclosure of its 22-nanometer manufacturing process. It’s the sort of thing that gets people who know chips kind of excited and leaves others kind of cold. But in fact, everyone should be kind of excited about this.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Moore’s Law. This was the observation in 1965 by the Intel co-founder Gordon Moore (pictured at the Intel Museum in 2005) that the number of transistors that could be crammed onto a chip doubles–and the size of those chips tended to shrink–as manufacturing technology improved on a fairly regular basis: About every 18 to 24 months. That shrinking meant two things. Chipmakers could make a chip with the same computing power as the previous generation more cheaply, or they could make a more powerful one with more transistors for about the same cost.

It all comes down to how many transistors you can cram onto a chip, and how many useful chips you can get from a single silicon wafer. In both cases, more is better. Moore’s observation–which was first published 46 years ago this month–has held up remarkably well and has proven one of the most important engines of growth in the technology industry. All the computing oomph you take for granted in your notebook, your smart phone, in the cloud, and all around you happens in part because the chips inside the hardware have gotten smaller and yet ever more powerful every two years or so.

So back to today’s announcement. As I mentioned, it’s going to revolve around its 22-nanometer manufacturing process. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, and its current factory processors turn out chips with transistors that are somewhat bigger–32 nanometers. Intel executives often refer to a process they call “tick-tock.” Today constitutes a tick, when in odd-numbered years, a new manufacturing process comes online and the previous generation chips are shifted to being built with the smaller transistors. A “tock” occurs in even-numbered years when Intel engineers come up with new chip designs that really show what the new factory processes are capable of. The implication is that it’s so regular you can almost set your watch by it. Intel’s long-term strategy can be summed up like so: Tick, tock, repeat.

On top of that there are likely to be disclosures about some of the advances in physics that Intel has had to make in order to get chips with transistors so small to work properly. When you’re dealing with things that small, the individual electrons flowing on the chip sometimes don’t behave as they should. For example, in 2007 Intel had to add the element Hafnium to its chip-making process in order to stop individual transistors from wasting electricity. (It was more complicated than that, but that in a nutshell was the problem.) Billions upon billions of transistors in billions of computers around the world wasting electricity is a bad thing, both financially–power is expensive–and environmentally.

What’s funny is that for years people have been saying that Intel–and indeed the entire chip industry–can’t continue on the Moore’s Law trajectory. At some point things get so small that you’re dealing with individual atoms and you can’t get any smaller than that. However, every time people have predicted its end, something happens to keep it going. A lot of companies have come up with some important advances that have kept it going. In the 1990s and early 2000s, IBM came up with some important advances that kept Moore’s Law on track. But more often that not it has been Intel that has kicked down the door when the experts said it was locked. Today it will probably kick down another.

This older video was created around the time that Intel unveiled its 45-nanometer process with Hafnium–kicking down one of those earlier doors. Perhaps there will be another today. Check in later as I cover the announcement.