IBM readies speedy new chips

Big Blue says the fastest silicon transistors ever made are ready to appear on chips that will greatly speed up computer networks.

John G. Spooner
John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
5 min read
IBM will announce Monday that the fastest silicon transistors ever made are ready to appear on chips designed to speed up computer networks.

The company's Semiconductor Division has combined many of its so-called 210GHz transistors into functioning circuits running at 110GHz or faster--an important milestone toward commercial use. At the same time, the transistors hold the promise of greater energy efficiency in systems that incorporate them.

Transistors--on-off switches used to transmit signals--are the basic building blocks of computer chips. The circuits that make use of them run more slowly than the transistors themselves because of their more complex construction.

The new transistors can operate on just 1 milliamp of electrical current, or about half the amount of energy demanded by current technology, and run about 80 percent faster. The success with the 110GHz circuits demonstrates that the transistors are capable of being used on chips.

IBM says that chips containing the transistors should arrive in high-end networking equipment shipping within the next year. By more quickly translating the electronic signals used to transfer data over networks, the chips will help speed up the computer networks that carry people's e-mail and deliver their favorite Web pages, IBM researchers said.

The new chips will run at speeds of 110GHz or more, which means they would translate signals three times quicker than today's cutting-edge OC768 networks, said Bernie Meyerson, an IBM fellow.

Twists and turns in the silicon roadway
The announcement is the latest advance in an increasingly heated competition between IBM and Intel to claim supremacy in semiconductor research.

Both chipmakers have been trotting out new developments at a rapid pace. IBM, for instance, has presented papers on Double Gate Transistors, futuristic components that will reduce energy consumption in chips, one of the major areas of research today.

IBM has also commercially brought out a chip--the Power 4--that contains two fully functioning chip cores, which is a first. Meanwhile, it has been actively promoting "silicon on insulator" (SOI) technology, an extra chip layer that allows processors to run faster by channeling away heat.

"The industry is going through one of these bends in the road--if you don't use (new power-management technologies), you will be left behind," Bijan Davari, vice president of semiconductor development at IBM Microelectronics, said in December.

Meanwhile, Intel's research labs have been pumping out their own accomplishments. Most recently, the company touted its Terahertz transistor, an upcoming design that will boost chip performance but hold the line on power consumption. Intel has also shown off a version of SOI as well as breakthroughs in chip packaging and circuit design that will further boost performance.

The company is also examining ways to manufacture flashlike memory out of the same materials from which CD-ROM discs are made.

"You have what may be the two premier research organizations in the world trading shots," said Fred Zeiber, analyst with Pathfinder Research. "The companies are becoming more competitive, and it...shows up with the research groups," he said.

The one-upsmanship, of course, serves a commercial purpose. For the past three years, Intel has made a concerted effort to become a dominant figure in the communications and networking markets--a traditional stronghold for IBM, Zeiber said. For its part, IBM sees its future as being a provider of complex, multinational computer systems, a task that requires a heavy concentration in R&D.

Intel deflects the suggestion of a chip tit-for-tat, even though the two companies often end up at the same industry conferences talking about the same technology.

"We have our own road map...and we assume that they (IBM) do as well," said Intel spokesman Manny Vara.

More speed, less heat
The speed of IBM's new transistor/circuit design, Meyerson said, points toward chips that will have enough horsepower on reserve to handle the data transmission speeds of several generations of future networking standards.

"This is a device where when we approach flat out (to 110GHz), we could probably approach data rates of 100gbps," Meyerson said. "But if you back down, it's capable of supporting very high data rates at very low power."

Indeed, when the chips are tuned to 40GHz to work at 40gbps network speeds, they consume between 300 to 500 times less power than IBM's current crop of networking chips, Meyerson said. And less power means less heat--which lifts a potential barrier to performance.

"What can limit you in designing machines is that (they) will do an impression of a self-cleaning oven better than anything else," Meyerson said, referring to the amount of heat a power-hungry processor can emit.

Taking their place in future networking equipment, the chips will be put in charge of translating multiple electrical signals into a single optical signal. This signal will be used to transport data such as e-mail over the Internet's fiber-optic backbone and other networks. Similar chips at the other end will then translate those optical signals back to electrical signals.

Meyerson likens this to 16 people driving 16 cars to a parking lot where they exit the cars, board a bus and journey to another location, where they once again go 16 separate ways.

The chip technology "enables you to sit at your desk and hit 'send,' and somewhere across the world, someone receives your e-mail," Meyerson said. There's nothing new in that, but the new chips will translate the data more quickly and consume less power doing so.

Melding silicon and germanium
IBM will manufacture the new chips using its silicon germanium, or SiGE, technology. SiGE is a technique used by IBM to increase the performance and reduce the power consumption of networking and communications chips.

The silicon germanium technology works by embedding germanium atoms in certain locations in the silicon structure that forms the base of microchips. The germanium makes the base a more efficient conductor of electricity.

The company began working with SiGE in 1989 and announced its efforts to build chips with the technology in 1998.

IBM calls this latest iteration of its SiGE process "8HP."

But SiGE technology will be used mainly for communications chips. IBM acknowledges that it's not necessary for chips such as those that go into desktop computers, though the company has a research effort to meld parts of its SiGE manufacturing techniques with its server chips. It calls this hybrid strained silicon.

"If you're doing microprocessors (for devices like PCs)...modern CMOS technology has an unbelievable distance to go," Meyerson said. CMOS is the standard manufacturing technology used by most chipmakers, including IBM, to build PC processors and related chips.

Several IBM Semiconductor Division customers, such as networking-hardware maker Sierra Monolithics, will build products based on Big Blue's new networking chips.