New 45nm IBM fab service could foster open source chip developement

Posted by on November 10, 2008 in new technology | Comments Off

Has the time come for Open source chips? I think so. We’ve seen the rise of the open source smart phone, and a fast growing open source project category is hardware design. Imagine a project done by thousands of volunteers to build a processor and chipset optimized for Linux. IBM’s announced opening of fab services could make that a reality.

There are two big costs to producing complex chips like CPU’s. The first is development – negated by an open source project, and the second is a foundry to fab the chips. So you have a few thousand people involved in a project that will all buy into a fab run, at the actual cost of the silicon – mere hundreds for an entire wafer. This also creates an opportunity for a new breed of “boutique” chip makers.

IBM says it will make 45-nanometer, silicon-on-insulator chips designed by other other semiconductor companies as a contract manufacturer. This means everyone from startups to Texas Instruments can now design high-performance chips that can consume less power — ushering in new designs for consumer electronics, cell phones and maybe even servers.

As it becomes ever more expensive for semiconductor companies to build manufacturing plants to make their own chips, there are plenty of foundry services out there. However, IBM has combined two important manufacturing technologies to make this offering unique. One is the process node, which affects how many chips can be crammed onto a wafer. Smaller process nodes, such as 45 nanometer, offer better power efficiency (or performance) and better economies of scale. The other technology is silicon-on-insulator (SOI), which is more expensive than the traditional CMOS process. Foundries offering SOI technology typically do so at larger nodes, such as at 90 nanometers, where it’s hard to justify the higher cost of SOI when a chipmaker may be able to get the same cost efficiencies or performance and power gains by going to a smaller process node with CMOS chips. (gigaom)