SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Seeking to take the lead in another emerging technology, IBM Corp.'s Microelectronics Group has rolled out what it claims is the industry's first 45-nm, silicon-on-insulator (SOI) foundry offering.
IBM has also bolstered parts of the shaky SOI supply-chain to propel its initial SOI foundry service in the market. But some wonder if the technology will gain traction amid the current IC slowdown and economic crisis.
To fuel a new class of SOI designs, IBM will provide a 45-nm foundry service within its own fabs. As part of the plan, Singapore's Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing Pte. Ltd. will act as a ''second source'' foundry for IBM's 45-nm SOI offering. And ARM Holdings plc announced a physical intellectual-property (IP) library offering for IBM's SOI technology.
With SOI, IBM appears to have taken the lead in another technology. The company and its foundry partners have recently announced a high-k/metal-gate offering at the 32-nm node, putting the group ahead of its rivals in Taiwan. In comparison, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (TSMC) and United Microelectronics Corp. (UMC) separately will not offer a high-k/metal-gate solution until the 28-nm node.
In the digital foundry markets, IBM also appears to have a lead in SOI. Germany's X-Fab Semiconductor Foundries AG provides a Bipolar-CMOS-DMOS (BCD) offering on SOI for analog/mixed-signal designs. ARM and UMC have promoted a 65-nm SOI offering with marginal success. And over the years, TSMC has been in--and mostly out--of SOI, generally claiming it has seen little demand for the technology.
SOI makes use of a layered silicon-insulator-silicon substrate in place of conventional bulk substrates in IC manufacturing. SOI-enabled devices are said to reduce parasitic device capacitance, thereby boosting performance. IBM claims 45-nm SOI can offer up to a 30 percent performance improvement or 40 percent power reduction, when compared to bulk silicon.
Despite its apparent advantages, SOI has been considered a niche technology. It is still more expensive than bulk silicon, thereby limiting its appeal in mass markets.
''To date, two major barriers have inhibited the broad adoption of SOI: foundry capacity and IP library availability. ARM and IBM have together taken the first step toward breaking down these barriers and making SOI a viable alternative for many more applications in the networking, storage, communication and consumer applications,'' said Joanne Itow, an analyst at Semico Research Corp. (Phoenix).
IBM itself has poured millions of dollars in SOI R&D. Since the 1990s, IBM has been shipping SOI-based processors within its own servers. The processors are based on its Power architecture.
Then, in 2007, the company rolled out a 45-nm ASIC offering that included SOI. IBM's ASIC offering is called Cu-45. Based on a 45-nm, dual-logic oxide technology, IBM's ASIC line features 9 to 10 levels of metal layers, ultra low-k dielectrics and 200 million wireable gates. IBM's 45-nm ASIC process is different than its common platform technology, which is offered by foundries Chartered, IBM and Samsung.
At 90- and 65-nm, IBM also offered SOI in the form of ''custom chips'' for select customers. For example, within their respective game consoles, Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony make use of central processing units, based on SOI. Those game processors, which are considered ''custom designs'' or ASICs, are all made by IBM and its fab partners.
Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) uses IBM's SOI technology for its processor designs, but rival Intel Corp. has dismissed and slammed the technology. For years, Intel claims that SOI is too complex and expensive to develop for mainstream devices.
Duncan Needler, manager of technology marketing at IBM's Microelectronics Group, dismissed claims that SOI is too expensive and exotic. ''That's absolutely not true,'' Needler said. As for the cost issues, ''the raw (SOI) wafers are still more expensive than bulk, but we're closing the gap.''
Now, with the new foundry offering, IBM's customers also have more choices to enable SOI designs. This, in turn, will bring SOI ''to a much broader set of clients,'' he told EE Times.