Intel 3D chip stacking could get you to buy a new PC

The chipmaker promises breakthrough performance.

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Raja Koduri, Intel's senior vice president of core and visual computing

Raja Koduri, Intel's senior vice president of core and visual computing

Intel/Ohad Falik

Intel has been struggling to keep up as its biggest rivals, Samsung and TSMC, erased its once-formidable manufacturing lead. But the chipmaker has a new 3D trick up its sleeve.

At an event to tout its processor architecture plans, the company announced it's perfected a manufacturing technology it calls Foveros to stack different chip elements directly on top of each other, a move that should dramatically increase performance and the range of chips Intel can profitably sell. The first Foveros chips will arrive in 2019, Intel said.

"We can build breakthrough architectures that cannot be done easily with existing approaches," said Wilfred Gomes, an Intel senior principal engineer. Foveros is a Greek word meaning "unique and special," he said.

If 3D stacking delivers the benefits Intel promises, the performance boost and power savings could once again give you a good reason to invest in a new personal computer.

"3D stacking is a big deal," said Real World Tech analyst David Kanter.

Some processors tailored for artificial intelligence and machine learning software have used a similar technology, but they're "crazy expensive," Kanter said. Intel's announcement indicates it's got a process that works much more affordably.

Intel needs new technology to improve its processors. Its 2018 models were largely unchanged from 2017, Apple is widely rumored to be working on laptops based on its own A series of processors, Arm's chip technology is growing up from phones to servers, and Amazon just dealt Intel a major vote of no confidence by designing its own Arm-based chips. The more Intel struggles with its chip family, the more we're likely to spend our money on new phones instead of new laptops.

But on Wednesday, Intel announced it's completely overhauled its old, largely stalled "tick-tock" model of steadily improving chip designs. That approach alternated annually between introducing a more advanced manufacturing process and a more advanced architecture to process computing instructions. Now in a "six-pillar" approach, it embraces what's best at any given moment from a variety of elements: manufacturing process, architecture, memory, security, chip communication interconnect, and software to exploit new hardware abilities.

Intel's manufacturing troubles maybe have prodded necessary change and ultimately could "turn out to be a blessing," Creative Strategies analyst Ben Bajarin tweeted: "This tested the company, humbled them and, in the end, forced them to create something much more in line with where the market is going."

Sailing into Sunny Cove

One part of Intel's response, also announced Wednesday, is a new chip family code-named Sunny Cove that will be used for both its Core line of PC chips and its Xeon line of server chips. It's designed to get more work done in parallel, to improve energy consumption and to boost some specific computing tasks like cryptography and AI.

Intel detailed some of its plans for Core chips for PCs and lower-power Atom chips through 2023.

Intel detailed some of its plans for Core chips for PCs and lower-power Atom chips through 2023.


The first Sunny Cove chip, code-named Ice Lake, will arrive in PCs in 2019, Intel said, but declined to share further details.

Raja Koduri, Intel's senior vice president of core and visual computing, made the announcements at an event called Architecture Day. He also said Intel has a new storage technology called Optane that speeds up longer-term storage -- the sort of thing you'd use a flash drive or hard drive for today -- so it performs closer to the vastly faster memory called RAM in PCs and phones.

Intel also announced a new 11th-generation graphics system for its chip that doubles performance over its current technology. And it's developed an approach to provide a single software interface called OneAPI that will work across its increasingly broad array of chip technologies -- its decades-old x86 chip lineage, its programmable FPGA chips, and modules that accelerate specific tasks like artificial intelligence graphics.

It's a sweeping overhaul of Intel's business.

"This is the most radical shift I have seen at Intel in the decades I have been following the company for nearly 30 years as a customer, competitor, and analyst," said Patrick Moorhead, analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy.

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First Foveros chips in 2019

3D stacking has been used for years for memory chips like the kind that store apps and photos on your phone. But Intel's approach works with logic chip elements that do the processing, plus other elements for chores like graphics, AI, high-speed memory and mobile phone radios, Intel said.

The result, for Intel, is a broader range of processors, Gomes said. One obvious use case is better system-on-a-chip designs, the approach used in today's smartphones that integrates lots of computing elements onto a single processor. That would improve thin-and-light laptops -- the kind that Apple helped popularize with its MacBook Air and that Intel rival Qualcomm hopes to power with its own PC chips.

Intel's 2019 chip using the Foveros stacking technology will come in a package smaller than a dime that will consume only 2 milliwatts of power when idle -- a low-power design that should help Intel compete better against the Arm chip family.

But Intel's approach could help the company with heavy-duty data center chips, too. And it could help the company with its acquisition strategy, giving new power to endeavors like the Mobileye technology for automotive computer vision and Nervana chips for speeding up AI.

One of the big benefits of 3D chip stacking is that Intel can dramatically speed up connections between processing logic circuitry and the high-speed memory that keeps it fed with data, Gomes said. Today, that data transfer is a big bottleneck.

10-nanometer chips ahoy

Intel's research and development engineers could use some good news. The company has been forced to repeatedly delay its processors built with electronic elements measuring 10 nanometers, or billionths of a meter. Intel co-founder Gordon Moore is famous for Moore's Law -- the observation that steadily doubling numbers of transistor electronics can be squeezed economically onto a processor.

But Moore's Law itself has slowed down, especially at Intel. Samsung and the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. have moved to 7-nanometer manufacturing processes. TSMC, for example, builds the A12 chips, found in new iPhones and iPads that arrived this year, with a 7nm process. Be warned, though, that the companies measure their technology somewhat differently, so direct comparisons between one 7nm process and another are tricky.

Intel said it's making steady progress toward its goal of shipping 10nm chips in high volume.

"Yields are improving, consistent with our previously stated timeline, and we continue to expect 10nm-based PC systems on shelves during the 2019 holiday season," the company said in a statement. Intel also denied an October report that Intel axed its 10nm process.

In the longer run, Intel has other options, too. One, called spintronics, is a radical rethinking of the most fundamental elements of processors, but Intel last week claimed progress in getting spintronics chips to work.

The 3D stacking technology will arrive with 10nm chips, Gomes said, and will follow along with Intel's future manufacturing improvements.

Fundamental chip breakthroughs don't come easily. Intel has been working on 3D chip stacking for four or five years, Gomes said. "I do not expect anybody to easily follow us."

First published Dec. 12, 6 a.m. PT.

Update, 7:14 a.m. PT: Clarifies that the first Foveros 3D-stacked chip will arrive in 2019 and adds further background and comment on Intel's transition. Update, 9:56 a.m. PT: Adds further comment and details.

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