IBM Breaks Down Chip Barriers

Today’s computer chips can only do one thing. They either have logic circuits to process information or memory circuits to store information. Efforts to date to put both kinds of circuits on the same chip have compromised one or both functions.

That won’t be the case for too much longer. IBM’s Microelectronics Division has developed a new computer chip technology that will allow both logic and memory circuits to be imprinted on the same chip with no loss of function. With this new technology – which uses copper wiring, another chip technology recently developed by IBM – 24 million “gates” or circuits can be packed on a single chip. That’s up to eight times the processing power and two to four times the memory found on today’s typical PC.

The result will be electronic devices – computers, cell phones, video games, etc. – that are smaller, less expensive and more powerful than current products.

“This breakthrough will have a fundamental impact on the future,” says G. Dan Hutcheson, president of San Jose, Calif.-based VLSI Research, which tracks the semiconductor industry. “I can’t put my finger on it because the applications aren’t here yet, but this definitely puts IBM back in the driver’s seat from the technology perspective. They seem to be firing on all cylinders now.”

IBM plans to deliver a prototype of the new application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) chips with embedded DRAM later this year, but it likely won’t be until the second half of next year before the chips reach the marketplace, says Subramanian Iyer, manager of systems scale integration at IBM’s Microelectronics Division.

It’s anyone’s guess when the AS/400 will take advantage of this new technology. An IBM spokesman says no timeframe has been set yet. The Pulsar series of AS/400 microprocessors will use copper circuitry and is expected to be introduced sometime between the second half of this year and the first half of next year. At the very least, embedded DRAM would be in the second incarnation of those chips, whenever that would be.

“I don’t see this [embedded DRAM] technology integrated into server machines right away,” says Iyer. “But over time, this will have an impact on midrange products, I’m quite sure of that.”

Iyer says the first application of this technology will likely be on three fronts – network infrastructure products such as routers and switches; PC components like graphics accelerator chips and hard disk controllers; and embedded system appliances like cellular phones and digital cameras.

“You bring the memory closer to the processor and cut down on waste, that’s what the technology allows you to do,” he says. “You’re increasing the bandwidth of the memory subsystem.”

“You’ll be able to store a lot more memory, so you can do more memory-intensive functions in a smaller physical area at a lower cost,” says Hutcheson. “Basically, you’ll get more performance at a lower cost, either double the performance for the same cost or the same performance for half the cost.”