The Secondary Payoff to Intel’s Cool Chips

Source: Reuters

What started as a breakthrough of chemical engineering 17 months ago has resulted in Intel breaking into new territories where it had never been in the past, at least with any success.

In January 2007, the company announced a design breakthrough called high-k metal gate, which would allow it to continue shrinking the manufacturing size of its processors while avoiding a heat build-up.

Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s infamous 1965 theorem that the number of transistors per square inch would double every 18 months, a.k.a. Moore’s Law, had enjoyed a decent, 30-plus year life span, but was in danger of coming to an end. Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) was finding it impossible to shrink its transistors any further using silicon dioxide technology.

Semiconductors have what are called gates between their many substrates, and this was becoming a weak spot in the chips. Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) was manufacturing gates literally a few atoms thick. The result was a great deal of voltage leakage. This caused heat and the chip to require a lot of power, since so much was seeping out.

The high-k metal gate, made from hafnium oxide, reduced power leakage by more than 100-fold over the older silicon dioxide gates. The first result of this breakthrough was Penryn, a processor that was made on a 45 nanometer process instead of 65 nanometer for previous generations but still ran cooler and required less power.

But as time has passed, Intel has been able to apply the 45nm, high-k metal gate technology to other areas. In doing so, it’s been able to take its Intel Architecture, the x86 technology that’s been used for almost 30 years now, shrink it drastically, and make chips that are usable in heretofore areas Intel couldn’t touch.

To get into the ultramobile/mobile Internet device/embedded space, Intel tried with Xscale, where it competed with the ARM processor. That failed, and the company sold off the Xscale business to Marvell Electronics in 2006.

x86 Inside (everything)

Instead, Intel is going into the embedded and very small form factor market with x86 architecture in the Atom line of processors, shrunk to the point it can be used in these systems, leak-proof enough to meet the battery requirements for very small devices and cool enough to not burn you when the device is in your pocket.

Now Intel has a big selling point: x86 apps can be ported from PCs to these ultramobile devices with minimal effort. Porting from x86 to ARM or Xscale is a much bigger rewrite. Hence, many happy ISVs at the recent Intel Developer Forum (IDF).

“This is certainly the good fallout from that [high-k metal gate] breakthrough,” said Clay Ryder, president of The Sageza Group. “That certainly makes it easier to carve off a chunk of their existing design and repurpose it without having to create a whole new architecture.”

Justin Rattner, chief technology officer of the company, spoke to about this during a lull in his hectic IDF schedule. “Could we have hit a small core design? Of course. Would it have been a competitive product? I think 45nm has been very important to hitting the performance level at the required power,” he said.

Being competitive in the ultramobile space is mainly a power issue. “You have to look at power consumption, both the thermal design power as well as idle power,” said Rattner. “The other thing that’s almost more important, particularly in MIDs, is the current leakage, and we got a huge reduction in leakage from high-k and metal gate.”

With the ability to make transistors smaller and still power efficient, Intel has been able to implement much more comprehensive power management across the platform then it had been in the past, said Rattner.

“As good as the processors are, that’s not even the primary source of power consumption in the platform. Bringing all the peripherals together gives us the ability to intelligently manage the platform, which is key to getting it into the smaller form factors,” he said.

Saavy Internet users are no longer content to settle for half the Internet experience on their mobile phone or ultra-mobile device, they want the same experience on a MID as on their desktop, said Steven Kawamoto, director of strategic marketing for NEC’s custom SOC solutions group.

He noted that during one keynote, a handheld device played the graphically-intensive online game World of Warcraft. “Could you have done that with another processor? No,” he told “So much of the ecosystem from the desktop or laptop side can be ported right over to the MID and retain the experience.”

The cooler Atom chips also means they can run fanless, a big issue in the MID market. “A lot of people in the embedded systems market are real excited to get x86-level performance without requiring a fan,” said Kawamoto.

At the same time, Intel can take this efficiency up in scale to Larrabee, its attempt to enter the graphics processing market. Larrabee is a many core design consisting of multiple x86 cores – Intel won’t say how many – tied together with a very innovative “ring” allowing them all to communicate.

“Were it not for the overall energy efficiency that high-k metal gate tech delivers, Larrabee would be hard pressed to be a flagship, competitive graphics engine,” said Rattner.

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