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10nm In Trouble
Quote:Intel announced its financial results today, and although it posted yet another record quarter, the company unveiled serious production problems with its 10nm process. As a result, Intel announced that it is shipping yet more 14nm iterations this year. They'll come as Whiskey Lake processors destined for the desktop and Cascade Lake Xeons for the data center.
Krzanich also admitted that the company's density lead over competing fabs is shrinking. Intel has long been the keeper of the Moore's Law flame, and the company has continued to insist that the Law is still alive long after other companies have conceded that it expired. We'll have to see if Intel changes its messaging, but we're a long time removed from the Tick-Tock cadence. Considering that Intel hasn't delivered a smaller process in significant volumes since 2014, it's fair to say that the original Moore's Law is officially dead.
Quote:Although Intel has said in the past that it was using self-aligned quad patterning as part of 10-nm production, Krzanich offered the eyebrow-raising prospect that the company has to employ as many as five or six multi-patterning steps to create certain 10-nm features in response to one analyst question.

Krzanich didn't say whether those figures were merely examples of multi-patterning in general or specific examples of steps needed to produce Intel 10-nm chips, but the sheer number of steps inolved in multi-patterning on that scale could be a major factor in the yield problems that Intel is experiencing. As GlobalFoundries put it to me during our foundry tour earlier this year, every interaction a silicon wafer has with lithography tools increases the chance of a defect, and multi-patterning involves a lot of interactions with those tools as a wafer is shepherded to completion.
Quote:As of this writing, it’s not clear if the Core i3-8121 is an unusual one-off or a sign that a few more SKUs might pop up here and there before the product line launches in wider volume. We’re in uncharted waters at this point. This is the first time we’ve seen Intel delayed so badly on a major product line, and the ramifications for overall development aren’t known. The Core i3-8121 isn’t a particularly impressive specimen, but given that we already know Intel’s 10nm development is troubled, it’s not fair to treat the CPU as a final verdict on Intel’s 10nm, either.
Quote:These statements suggest an answer to what happened to Intel’s 10nm ramp and why it’s so late. Put simply, the company bit off more than it could chew. Intel’s node technology has always been ahead of TSMC, Samsung, or GlobalFoundries — a 14nm chip from Intel is roughly equivalent to a 10nm CPU from one of these companies. With 10nm, as shown on the slides above, Intel wanted to widen that gap and make up for the time it lost in delaying 10nm (note that this was before 10nm slid into 2019).
Intel’s slip on 10nm is significant. It’s the first time in the last two decades, at least, that the company has taken so long to make a node transition. It’s absolutely opened up a bit more opportunity for AMD than might otherwise exist. But it’s also a straightforward issue related to Intel’s decision to aggressively push for higher transistor densities at 10nm, and the use of EUV at lower process nodes should help prevent the problem from occurring again. In aggregate, Murthy’s overall level of confidence is well placed. Intel can’t afford to rest on its laurels and ignore its competitors, but 10nm slipping into 2019 isn’t going to cripple the company, either.
Quote:As a result of Intel's 10 nm difficulties, analyst firm Susquehanna, who recently downgraded AMD and NVIDIA shares on the expected lowered demand for graphics products from these companies in the wake of the first ever Ethereum ASIC, has now revised AMD's share strategy. Previously set at "Sell", the firm now rates AMD's shares as "Neutral" - specifically citing Intel's difficulties in ramping up the new process as simply giving AMD more chances to catch-up and surpass its blue counterpart. Susquehanna's Christopher Rolland published a note to clients stating basically that - that "We believe Intel's delay will help to maintain/improve AMD's competitiveness for their next generation of EPYC and Ryzen products", adding that "(...) for the first time in memory, AMD will compete at a similar process technology as Intel, a strong multi-year tailwind".
Quote:Its summary mentions quite a few juicy details of the 10 nm process. The biggest of these is the achievement of a 2.7-times increase in transistor density over the current 14 nm node, enabling Intel to cram up to 100.8 million transistors per square millimeter. A 127 mm² die with nothing but a sea of transistors, could have 12.8 billion transistors. Intel 10 nm node also utilizes third-generation FinFET technology, with a reduction in minimum gate pitch from 70 nm to 54 nm; and minimum metal pitch from 52 nm to 36 nm. 10 nm also sees Intel introduce metallization of cobalt in the bulk and anchor layers of the silicon substrate. Cobalt emerged as a good alternative to tungsten and copper as a contact material between layers, due to its lower resistance at smaller sizes,
Quote:Intel responded to several analysts' questions on the state of its oft-delayed 10nm process. Swan announced that "Yields are improving consistent with the timeline we shared in April, and we expect systems on shelves for the 2019 holiday season." Earlier this year at CES 2018, Intel announced that it is shipping 10nm processors, but they turned out to be restricted China and came as low-end dual-core parts with a disabled integrated graphics engine.
Quote:It's likely that "Whiskey Lake" will take Intel into 2019 after the company establishes performance leadership over 12 nm AMD "Pinnacle Ridge" with a new round of core-count increases. Intel is also squeezing out competitiveness in its HEDT segment by launching new 20-core and 22-core LGA2066 processors; and a new platform with up to 28 cores and broader memory interface. AMD, meanwhile, hopes to have the first 7 nm EPYC processors out by late-2018. Client-segment products based on its architecture, however, will follow the roll-out of these enterprise parts. We could see a point in 2019 when AMD launches its 7 nm 3rd generation Ryzen processors in the absence of competing 10 nm Core processors from Intel. Posted below is an Intel slide from 2013, when the company was expecting 10 nm rollout by 2015. That's how much its plans have derailed.
Quote:Intel announced that due to its manufacturing delays, it will split its manufacturing group into three different pieces. Sohail Ahmed, who has been working for Intel since 1984 and leading the manufacturing group since 2016, will quit next month.
Quote:Intel's unusually quick response is telling. The company certainly doesn't need any lingering questions surrounding its progress on its 10nm node, particularly as it nears its earnings call later this week. As an official dispatch from an Intel twitter account, the statement does hold all of the legal weight of any official Intel statement, and misleading statements to investors is a punishable offense.

In other words, Intel is throwing its weight behind the assertions it made in its most recent earnings call that systems with 10nm processors will come to market in the second half of 2019. There has been speculation that Intel could skip its 10nm process in favor of moving directly to its nascent 7nm node. But there is nothing to substantiate those rumors.

Demerjian has been right in the past, correctly claiming that Intel's 10nm process was facing delays while the company claimed otherwise, which does give some weight to his claims. Most of Demerjian's article is behind a paywall, so it's hard to analyze the full rationale behind Demerjian's statements. No analyst is infallible, so only time will tell if Demerjian's claims are accurate, or if Intel is indeed making strides toward wide-scale 10nm availability.
Quote:Unfortunately, it’s not possible to see the actual evidence SemiAccurate provides (archival link, the site is down) for its argument because that information is subscriber-only. It’s difficult, therefore, to test the evaluated claims. But the better question to ask, given the paucity of information, is this: Regardless of whether Intel canceled its previous 10nm process, would Intel walk away from being a leading-edge foundry? And the answer there is an obvious “No.”

There is a multitude of reasons why Intel won’t accept this outcome, starting with the fact that it’s tantamount to ceding future progression to outside companies. And in this context, ” canceling” 10nm could mean something more akin to “drawing up a new plan for future node progression” as opposed to “walking away from the leading edge forever,” even assuming SemiAccurate’s rumors are correct. There’s too much at stake as far as Intel’s perceived manufacturing prowess. Leading edge development is simply too important to the company to quit.
Our final thought is this. While it’s true that Intel’s 10nm slips have already been unprecedented, regardless of whether this rumor is true, these problems do generally fit the theory we’ve talked about over the years: Specifically, node slips and problematic improvement cycles were going to become more normal than they used to be, as the difficulty of further improvement only grew. Intel isn’t the company we expected to slam into these problems first, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t real.

That doesn’t mean Intel hasn’t made mistakes throughout this process. But it does make those mistakes intrinsically more likely to occur.
Quote:If you’d told me five years ago that Intel was about to stumble into arguably the worst manufacturing problems of its existence, I would have been surprised. Our 2012 story on why Intel leads (led) the world in semiconductor manufacturing now looks more like a historical retrospective than a confident projection of future trends. The company’s slip — and the potential consequences of that slip — have driven a lot of analysis over the past few years, some of it written by yours truly.
It might be tempting to dismiss this as Intel pivoting away from a metric simply because it isn’t winning in that category any longer, but the end of conventional Moore’s law scaling isn’t unique to Intel. It’s something the entire semiconductor industry is grappling with. But we’re also in a reality where no one is sure which AI/ML products will succeed, or how quickly alternative architectures will ramp, or how long it will be before autonomous vehicles are common. The path forward for conventional silicon scaling below 5nm is deeply uncertain.

It’s easy to say that sure, not being in a leadership position is going to cost Intel something. It’s much harder to predict exactly what that cost is going to be. If I personally had to guess, I’d bet on less disruption rather than more. With the gains from each new node smaller than the node before, the chances that missing a node will prove a major problem are lower as well. The factors that matter to future success are likely to be rooted in the types of products a company brings to market and how well those products are positioned to meet the needs of the new workloads we see rising by the day. Process node positioning/leadership is important to that question, but not the sole determinant.
Quote:Renduchintala's comments on the company's work on 10-nm chips suggest interesting times lay ahead next year as the company begins introducing those products in volume. Renduchintala flatly contradicted the notion that the company has scaled back some of its ambitions for the 10-nm process in order to boost yields. In response to one question, the exec noted that "the power and performance and transistor density targets that we set in 2014 remain the same." That could mean Intel's first 10-nm products will still achieve a roughly 2.7x density improvement over its own 14-nm process.

Renduchintala also shed some light on the company's plans for its 7-nm process technology as part of the Q&A. The company's past comments about 7-nm suggested that the fate of that process partially rested in lessons that it needed to learn from ramping 10-nm. Indeed, Renduchintala said that even though Intel's 7-nm development lies in "a separate team and a largely separate effort," that presumed team has taken "a lot of lessons out of the 10-nanometer experience as we defined that and defined a different optimization point between transistor density, power and performance and schedule predictability."

One takeaway from those lessons appears to be a somewhat-less-ambitious scaling goal for 7 nm. Renduchintala notes that Intel 7-nm parts will return to something closer to a traditional 2x scaling goal—about 2.4x, if past comments by Intel execs hold. While that isn't news on its own, Renduchintala's statements confirm that the company's ambitions for 7 nm might wisely be more conservative in light of its 10-nm woes. Renduchintala also reiterated the fact that 7 nm will be Intel's first process with EUV lithography.

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