Archive for the 'Processor Manufacturers' Category

May 9th, 2011 ~ by admin

Intel’s Ivy Bridge: 50 Years of flat transistors come to an end

Traditional microprocessor transistors are "planar" or flat as they pass through the switching gate

April marked the 50th anniversary of Robert Noyce’s patent on making silicon IC’s with a planar process, a concept that has changed little since then.  That is, until this month, when Intel announced their new 22nm process, a process that will not be restricted to planar transistors.  Intel, like Hollywood as of late, has gone 3D, Instead of a transistor being built in planes (layers) Intel has developed a way to produce transistors with source/drain spanning several planes on the die, essentially they are formed vertically, rather then horizontally.

This in an of itself is not remarkable, it has been thought of, and done before. What Intel did is make it happen on a commercially viable process.  Intel claims to be able to initially manufacture these on a commercial scale at only a 3% cost increase over traditional planar processes, and of course expects that 3% added cost to drop to zero, or in fact result in a cost savings, as the process is refined.

The Tri-Gate system features 3D "fins". This allows the same surface area, in a smaller die area.

What this allows is 2-3 times the number of transistors in the same space as a planar process (assuming the same process size).  Intel plans to use this process for the 22nm node. Intel’s first processor, the 4004, was constructed on a 10 micron process with 2300 transistors.  Thats 500,000 times larger features and over a million times less transistors, yet it consumed almost a 1 watt of power.  With Intel’s new 3-D 22nm process it should give Intel the break they need into the mobile phone market, a market they have been desiring to reenter ever since selling off their mobile ARM (PXA//StrongARM) division to Marvell several years ago.

February 5th, 2011 ~ by admin

Atmel Buys MHS, Again – The Twisted History of Atmel, Temic and MHS

Today Atmel purchased MHS Electronics, a French company.  Why is this interesting? Because this is not the first time Atmel has bought MHS, in one form or another.  Atmel, Matra, MHS, and Temic’s histories are rather intertwined, with mergers, acquisitions and name changes occurring frequently over the last 25 years.

A Bit of History….

Atmel 4Mbit EPROM - 1995

Atmel was founded in 1984 by George Perlegos, a former Intel employee, as a fab-less semiconductor company.  Originally Atmel designed EPROM’s and PLDs.  They were manufactured by Sanyo, which had an Intel license.  Intel, however, sued Atmel (along with Hyundai, iCT, AAS, Cypress, and Pacesetter Electronics) over EPROM patents in 1987.  The courts sided with Intel which severely hampered Atmel’s ability to make EPROM’s.  Their focus then switched to non-volatile memories, such as Flash for which they have become very well known and continue to make.  In 1989 they bought their own fab (from Honeywell) in Colorado Springs, CO and in 1993 released an 8051 (Intel licensed) with integrated Flash memory.  This catapulted Atmel into the microcontroller market that is today one of their core businesses.  In 1994 Atmel Purchased SEEQ, an EPROM and EEPROM company that Perlegos helped start in 1981.  In 1995 Atmel opened a fab in Rousset, France, thus beginning the French connection.

Temic 80C32 - 1998

Temic had its beginning in 1903 as Telefunken (Ironically a joint venture of Siemens and another company).  In 1967 AEG merged with Telefunken and in 1985 Daimler-Benz bought Telefunken-AEG and renamed it to simply AEG. The semiconductor division of AEG was then called TEMIC (TElefunken MICroelectronics).  In 1998 AEG sold TEMIC to Vishay, another automotive electronics supplier.  Vishay only had interest in the discrete and power electronics portions so immediately sold the IC portion to Atmel. This gave Atmel a Bipolar fab in Germany

Matra Harris Semiconductors SA (MHS) was created in 1979 as a joint venture between Matra, the French high technology group, and Harris Semiconductor, an American semiconductor manufacturer. In 1989, Harris withdrew from the partnership, and the name was changed to Matra MHS SA. Two years later, AEG (The electronics division of Daimler-Benz) purchased 50% of Matra and merged the unit with its TEMIC Semiconductor subsidiary. In 1998, AEG purchased the remaining shares of the company and the name was changed again, to MHS SA.

MHS 80C52 - 1988

This was part of the sale to Vishay mentioned above, which Atmel then purchased.  MHS had one CMOS fab in Nantes, France which was included in the sale

Here is where it gets complicated…

The result of all of this was Atmel now owned Temic, MHS, 2 fabs in France, one in Germany, their original fab in Colorado as well as a fab in England, and one in Texas.  Atmel needed to consolidate their fabs so in 2005 they sold the MHS fab in Nantes France to Xbybus, a French company. Xbybus ran the Nantes fab as MHS Electronics.  In 2008 Atmel sold their fab in Germany (the former TEMIC fab) to Tejas semiconductor.  This left Atmel with one fab in Colorado, and one in Rousset, France.  Labor issues at the French fab in regards to Atmel’s need to reduce production led to indefinite strikes at this fab, hampering Atmel’s work to sell it.  Finally in 2010 Atmel received approval from the French gov’t to sell the fab to LFoundry, a French company.  This marked the end of Atmel’s fab presence in France…..

Telefunken U3870M CPU (Mostek Clone) - 1986

For about 9 months…

Today, Atmel has bought MHS Electronics, and their fab in Nantes, France, a fab they owned from 1998-2005.  MHS had been having financial troubles since 2008.  An interesting end to a series of event that began over 30 years ago.

I suspect though that we have not yet heard the last of MHS, or perhaps TEMIC.

February 1st, 2011 ~ by admin

Shrinking Process size Shrinking Foundry Selection

The processes used in manufacturing processors has been shrinking ever since the IC was invented.  In the 1970′s the common feature size was 10 microns.  Today many chips are made on a 22nm (0.022micron) process.  The cost of equipment to manufacture IC’s on such a small process has been increasing rapidly.  The cost of equipment goes up much higher then the the rate of process shrink.  Put another way, to half the process technology, equipments costs are significantly higher then merely double.

What this is causing is something that has happened, or is happening in most other mature industries.  Initially the technology is equally expensive, and accessible to each company, so many companies make the dive into it.  As the technoogy becomes more expensive, it becomes more exclusive.  A company must have the revenues (by having a very succesful product line) to afford the capital expenditures to move to the next technology.

This results in consolidation, many companies do not have the revenues to afford to upgrade their fabs; some companies start out knowing this and operate as a fab-less company, relying solely on contract foundries to make their parts.  In the 1970′s and even the 1980′s this was the exception.  Today, it is the rule.  IC companies simply cannot afford to keep a fab running at the latest tech level.

2011 Foundries by process technology

19 different foundries have 130nm capabilities, a process that was introduced in 2000.  This is a fine process for many applications but certainly not very useful for most low-power (such as mobile) applications.  At a 32mn process the number of foundries has dropped to only 6 with only 4 of those expected to hit 22nm this year.  TSMC is a pure play foundry, they make no products of their own, solely parts for other companies.  Globalfoundries is the foundry spinoff of AMD, and now operates much like TSMC.  Samsung does both, they make many products themselves (The Apple A4 processor being one of the better known products) as well as provide foundry services for other companies.  Intel recently started to experiment with working as a foundry, perhaps to take up any slack they may have in their fabs.  One particularly interesting note is that Japanese fabs have not been able, or willing to keep up with technology.  This may have to do with how fragmented that market was, and may change as more Japanese IC companies consolidate (such as Mitsubishi, Hitachi and NEC forming Renesas).

This trend will continue as technology advances and becomes more expensive to produce.  However, many products simply do not need to be made on the most advanced process. Your toaster oven is just fine with running ICs made on a 130nm process, and thats unlikely to change.  As long as there are 3-4 foundries on the leading edge, competition will keep driving advances in technology, and reductions in costs.

April 22nd, 2010 ~ by admin

Apple rumored to buy ARM Holdings

AppleInsider has a post up about a potential interest Apple has in ARM Holdings, designers of the ARM processor cores used in the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, among tens of thousands of other devices. Apple has a market cap, of almost $250 billion, while ARM is just shy of $2 billion. Apple clearly has the cash abilty to purchase ARM outright, and they certainly have a reason to want to.

However, the rest of the computer world has an even bigger reason to keep Apple from doing so.  ARM devices are used by tens of thousands of devices, made by thousands of companies. Silicon containing ARM IP is made by hundreds of companies across the world. The success of these companies, their designs, and the devices they power is in large part based on fair, equal, and predictable availability of licenses from ARM.

If Apple were to own ARM, they could completely stop the availability of licenses to any design they felt was a competitor, or they could delay the release to third parties of newer designs. This is similar to the problem some phone companies are experiencing with Google and their Android OS, Google is motivated to sell their own branded Nexus One phone, with the latest version of Android, before giving the same version to third parties.

Read More »

April 5th, 2010 ~ by admin

Apple iPad Round up: Inside and Out The Processors of Apple’s Latest

Apple Officially has launched the iPad, essentially a scaled up iPhone, and judging by the model number, it started development several years ago around the time of the first iPod Touch. Many of the components are similar to the iPhone, if not the same. Obviously the biggest processor ews is the Apple A4 ARM processor at its heart. Its developed by Apple, and built by Samsung. a multi-die package, it includes the ARM processor, and PowerVR Graphics on one die, and then two 128MB DRAM dies as well.

iPad Motherboard - A4 CPU by Samsung

What is interesting about the A4? It has a 64bit memory bus, rather then the more standard 32bit but found on most ARM devices. This likely for faster memory access to support faster graphics.

Wifi, Bluetooth, and FM functions are handled by a Broadcom BCM4329 which includes two processors of its own (the documentation of this part does not state what architecture they are, but MIPS or XA-RISC is likely)

The screen controller is the Broadcom BCM5973/5974 which has been used by Apple for several years. The Baseband processor in the 3G version is the Infineon X-Gold 608 which contains a 312MHz ARM926 processor, a 2007 design, so probably saved Apple some money.

So all told the iPad 3G contains at least 4 seperate processors.

Instrinsity: ARM Processor Design House

In related news rumors are flying about Apple acquiring Intrinsity. Instrinsity is a processor design house which specializes in, you guessed it, ARM processors. Its likely they have helped Apple more on the A4 then P.A. Semi (another Apple acquisition) This is further supported by the fact that Intrinsity has worked a lot lately with Samsung in developing a 1GHz ARM CPU (the Hummingbird). Who fab’s the A4? Yah, Samsung.

Sources:
EE Times: Inside the iPad
EE TImes: Inside the iPad: Broadcom/Samsung
iFixit: Teardown
ars technica: Apple buys Instrinsity

March 26th, 2010 ~ by admin

The processors of the Internet – Keeping the data flowing

Routing internet traffic takes a vast amount of processing power. Gone are the days of dialup, where data could be processed with relative ease. Now with every connection pumping out data at rates measured in Mbits, high end devices are needed to route, inspect, and shape that traffic. These devices literally inspect, and operate on EVERY packet that goes through them, that require incredible speed to do so without affecting the speed of the data.

Netronome NFP-32xx block diagram

Enter such companies as Netronome, a maker of network flow processors, compatible with the Intel IXP28xx series. Each one of these processors has a 700MHz ARM CPU, as well as 8 1.4GHz RISC based Microengines are capable of delivering 56700MIPS. Expect to see more such products as companies work to meet President Obama’s National Broadband Plan.

March 14th, 2010 ~ by admin

The 8-bit Legacy: Why They will never die

This topic comes up a lot. Why are old CPU designs still used? and used a lot. Every few years a company will make a statement about their new 32bit or 16bit CPU/MCU design that makes ‘migration from an 8-bit design easy’ or seeks to replace 8-bit microcontrollers entirely. It does not happen, and will not for decades.

1981 Motorola 68000 a 16/32bit CPU

8-bit processors first debuted in 1972 with the Intel 8008, so they are pushing 40 years. What many don’t realize is that 32bit processors debuted in 1979 (Motorola 68k and National Semiconductor 32k). So 32 bit is nothing new, and the same reason applies today as it did 30 years ago. Why use a Ferrari when a Chevy will do? Most designs simply don’t need that power, or complexity, 8-bits is MORE then enough to run a toaster oven, a bread machine, or your TV remote.

Embedded.com had an article talking about this issue just last week. So why do companies say that their design will replace 8-bit? It’s good PR, it gets people talking about their new processor, and thats not a bad thing.

October 7th, 2009 ~ by admin

ARM and MIPS – The RISC Brothers

Perhaps 2 of the most famous RISC architectures, ARM, and MIPS, have been around for years.  Like many well designed architectures, they continue to be adapted, enhanced, and used in litterally billions of devices.

Recently Altera (maker of FPGAs and CPLD’s) licensed the use of the MIPS32 core.  This is a first for MIPS, as they now join ARM, and PowerPC as major cores available in FPGAs. Source: EETimes

On the topic of ARM, they have been working extensively recently with GlobalFoundries to provide customers with proven IP, specifically the ARM Cortex-A9.  They are developing as a SoC core on a 28nm process.  ARM currently works with TSMC to test, and prove various cores on TSMC’s process, and now will do so with GlobalFoundries. What this does in enable system builders to have IP blocks that are PROVEN on a given manufacturing node. It takes some of the guess work, and certainly risk, out of developing a ASSP, ASIC, or SoC.

September 25th, 2009 ~ by admin

(MMitsubishi + Hitachi = Renesas) + NEC = Renesas

Yah a bit of merger madness, NEC Electronics has merged with Renesas, further consolidating the Japanese microcontroller market. This will put the new company third in global IC sales, behind only Intel and Samsung.  It will be interesting to see which products survive the merger, as there will be some overlap.

What does this mean for CPU collectors? Just as happened when Mitsubishi and Hitachi merged, deprecated and eliminated devices will become increasingly hard to find data on.

Source: EE Times

September 16th, 2009 ~ by admin

GlobalFoundries + Chartered = a new kid on the block

In case you missed it last week, GlobalFoundries (the company AMD spun off to manage its foundries) has acquired Chartered Semiconductor in Singapore.  This changes the playing field a lot in the foundry world.  A world dominated by UMC and TSMC.

Acquiring Chartered allows GlobalFoundries to dissolve some of AMDs interest in the company, as well as bring on board many more customers.  Before, Global only had AMD, and STm as clients, now they have all of Chartered’s which includes such names as Toshiba, and Microsoft.

A game changer for sure. While they are not as big as TSMC, they certainly will be making TSMC look over their shoulder more.  This will help the foundry industry remain competitive and force TSMC and GlobalFoundries to remain innovative and on the cutting edge of fab technology.