An event called the Design Automation Conference (DAC) kicked-off in Anaheim, California yesterday, bringing together the great and the good of the electronic circuit design world. Pretty arcane stuff, you may be thinking, and you'd be right. But it's also where much of the technology required to make your mobile device more powerful is unveiled.
The big announcement of the show has to be the delivery of a 32/28nm high-k metal gate (HKMG) design platform by a partnership of ARM, IBM, Samsung, GlobalFoundries and Synopsys. To find out why this is such a big deal, we spoke to John Heinlein, director of strategic accounts marketing at UK low-power chip designer ARM.
"We're trying to provide a top to bottom solution for companies," said Heinlein, explaining that the ultimate purpose is to reduce the barriers to entry to the 32/28nm HKMG process. "Some of the very early entrants have a partial solution already, but there are a broad set of customers that can benefit."
Most SoCs you have in your phones today will probably be manufactured on the 65nm process and 45nm designs are beginning to find their way to the foundries now. 32nm is the next node after that and 28nm is a ‘half node' smaller yet. In principle, a smaller manufacturing process means you can cram more transistors (and hence processing power) into the same amount of silicon, with the same power draw.
But things are getting complicated; as the manufacturing process shrinks, the issue of electrical leakage becomes more prominent and leaky circuits are inefficient ones. For this reason new materials are being used that can hold more charge and thus offer more resistance to leakage. This property is referred to as ‘high-k' and, ironically, Intel has a good explanation of it here.
"A broader set of customers will be able to leverage high-k metal gate technology, which really helps with leakage," said Heinlein. "This is one of the reasons we've been so aggressive in working with the Common Platform. ARM has been investing in this technology to a greater degree than ever."
So, by working with the Common Platform (GlobalFoundries and the foundry arms of IBM and Samsung) and design outfit Synopsys, ARM reckons it can make it easier for fabless chip companies to manufacture 32nm and 28nm designs and hence catalyse even more competition in the market for the next generations of SoC.