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Why Moore's Law is nowhere near ready to meet its maker

Posted: 22 May 2015 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Intel? Moore's Law? transistor? FPGA? memory?

Moore's Law celebrated another year of existence during its 50th anniversary last April 2015. 'Celebration' is quite an appropriate term considering the number of years the law successfully evaded demise and pundits proclaiming its extinction (which, I might emphasise, never came to pass). It makes me wonder, if Moore's Law is in fact hanging by a thread, it sure does a pretty decent job clinging to dear life in spite of the level of scepticism it endures.

No one seems to be sure what Moore's Law is. Moore originally predicted the number of transistors on a chip would double every year; later he amended that to two years. Some now claim the law sets an 18 month rate. Others say the law predicts that system performance will double every 18 months (or two years, depending on who is making the claim).

The mainstream press is clueless about the "law." Tom Friedman, of The World is Flat fame, seems to think it really is a law, instead of an observation and an aspiration. Gordon Moore's 1965 paper showed it to be a historical pattern rather than a law of nature. And it's an aspiration as leading semiconductor vendors use it as a guide for their products. For instance, Intel plans for a "tick (process shrink) or a "tock" (new microarchitecture) every 12-18 months.

I can't find what process geometry was used in 1965 when Moore made his prediction, but remember that few ICs had more than dozens of transistors at the time. I thought maybe the biggest part of the time was the 74181 ALU, which implemented about 75 gates, but it appears that this part didn't come out till five years later. Given that we've gone from a handful of transistors to billions on an IC, Moore's prediction certainly was remarkable and prescient.

Is it coming to an end? For 30 years naysayers have been claiming that process scaling is doomed, but the incredible engineers designing these parts continue to astound.

Gordon Moore thinks the law will peter out in the next decade or so. Intel thinks it's good for at least another decade. Yet in 2003 Intel predicted an end to the law shortly after hitting the anticipated 16nm node. Today it seems we're on track for 10nm fairly soon with 7nm not far off. (There is some marketing fuzz in the definition of "node," and it has been a long time since that term had much to do with the size of a transistor).

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