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IBM jumpstarts ASIC world with 45nm line

Posted: 01 Aug 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:45nm ASIC? embedded DRAM? silicon-on-insulator? processor memory performance?

IBM Corp. has rolled out its initial ASIC offering based on 45nm technology. The product line is the world's first ASIC that combines embedded DRAM and silicon-on-insulator (SOI) technologies, according to the company.

IBM's rivals took potshots at the announcement, claiming that the technologies will increase the overall cost for ASICs. On the other hand though, the announcement could also increase performance levels and breathe new life into the lowly ASIC.

Slow market decline
The ASIC business has been in a slow decline for some time, prompting some observers to wonder whether the market still has a pulse.

IBM's 45nm ASIC technology is separate from another process effort by Big Blue. Advanced Micro Devices Inc., IBM, Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing Pte Ltd, Freescale Semiconductor Inc., Infineon Technologies AG and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd are co-developing a process technology as part of the so-called Common Platform alliance.

Fujitsu, NEC, Toshiba and several fabless players have also recently added new performance features to the ASIC, but the real question is whether the market is nearly extinct.

Regarding IBM's announcement, Gartner analyst Bryan Lewis said that the ASIC line is also a "big deal," mainly because of the introduction of SOI and embedded DRAM in the technology.

It is unlikely that IBM's product can jumpstart the overall ASIC market, however. The mainstream ASIC sector consists of products based on 130nm and 90nm technologies. The 65nm ASIC market remains small, but the 45nm era "is a long ways off," Lewis said.

Meanwhile, IBM is optimistic about the ASIC market, despite doomsday pronouncements about it from others. Overall business is still growing for the company, which is the world's second ASIC supplier, behind Texas Instruments Inc. "I don't see a slowdown," said Tom Reeves, VP of semiconductor and technology services within IBM's Global Engineering Solutions unit.

In fact, IBM's 45nm ASIC offering is expected to drive the "next buildout of the Internet," Reeves said. "We think that this is a game changer."

IBM's product, dubbed the Cu-45 High Performance Custom Chip, can improve processor memory performance by up to 30 percent in about one-third the space with one-fifth the standby power of conventional SRAM.

Applications include the communications, storage and mobile markets. Based on a 45nm, dual-logic oxide technology, IBM's ASIC line features 9-10 levels of metal layers, ultralow-k dielectrics, 3.8-9.9ps gate delays and 200 million wireable gates.

IBM's 45nm ASIC combines embedded DRAM and silicon-on-insulator technology.

The 0.9/1V product line comes in two versions, which will be shipped in early 2008. The 12? logic device is a high-performance offering, while the 16? product is said to manage leakage current.

IBM's products also include SOI and embedded DRAM. Embedded DRAM reduces space on the chip, as compared with SRAM. SOI provides a thin insulating layer on the wafer, which is said to boost speed but also lowers junction capacitance.

Investing in ASIC
For years, SOI has been used in the development of high-speed processors, including those from AMD, IBM and others. IBM also manufactures SOI-based processors for game machines from Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony.

Not surprisingly, IBM's ASIC rivals are not bullish about SOI, saying that traditional bulk silicon is a less-expensive solution. "Frankly, I'm a little surprised that IBM is introducing SOI to the ASIC world," said Kazu Yamada, VP and general manager of custom SoC solutions at NEC Electronics America Inc. "I think people want a more generic technology."

NEC claims to have addressed the real issue in the ASIC market with the introduction of high-k at 55nm. "Leakage is the problem," Yamada said. The real goal is to "reduce standby current."

Meanwhile, Toshiba is readying its previously announced, 45nm ASIC line. The technology is based on bulk CMOS, which outperforms the SOI-based offering from IBM, he said. NEC, Sony and Toshiba have co-developed the 45nm process as part of a previously announced alliance.

Another ASIC competitor suggested that IBM's 45nm line is geared for niche-oriented, bleeding-edge applications. "It's not for the mainstream," said Shafy Eltoukhy, VP of manufacturing operations for Open-Silicon Inc., a fabless ASIC vendor.

Still, the big question remains: Is there any life left in the ASIC market? The answer is a provisional "yes." While there are fewer ASIC design starts in the world today, the overall dollar value of these products is increasing, said Hugh Durdan, VP of marketing for eSilicon Corp., a fabless ASIC house.

While ASIC design starts are falling, Cisco, Nortel and other major OEMs continue to use such parts to differentiate their products, he said.

While demand for rival FPGAs is on the rise, "an FPGA just can't deliver the performance," he said.

- Mark LaPedus
EE Times




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