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Intel defends its process-technology leadership at 14nm and 10nm

What's in a number?
— 10:00 AM on March 30, 2017

At its Technology and Manufacturing Day event in San Francisco this week, Intel delivered a stern rebuke to the growing chorus of questioners asking whether it's lost its process-technology lead. The company brought several luminaries from its manufacturing division on stage to talk about how its 14-nm process technology compares to its competitors' 16-nm, 14-nm, and 10-nm offerings. It also offered some projections about how its upcoming 10-nm process will stack up.

From the top, Intel came right out and said what many in the industry have understood for some time: that the names of recent process nodes have become unmoored from the actual characteristics of the underlying technologies they claim to represent. A brief refresher: Intel's cutting-edge Broadwell, Skylake, and Kaby Lake CPUs are all manufactured on its proprietary 14-nm FinFET process. AMD's Ryzen CPUs and Polaris GPUs are produced on GlobalFoundries' 14-nm FinFET technology, and Nvidia fabricates many of its Pascal GPUs on TSMC's 16-nm FinFET tech. If one were to take those numbers at face value, one might believe that Intel, TSMC, and GlobalFoundries are all on relatively even footing when it comes to process tech.

The worry among investors and the analyst community, in turn, seems to be that Intel's competitors will beat it to the next process node advance. For just one example of this perceived threat, Qualcomm's upcoming Snapdragon 835 chip will be fabricated on Samsung's 10-nm process, and that chip (plus Samsung's Exynos 8895 SoC) will both be shipping soon in Samsung's Galaxy S8. MediaTek has previously announced plans to make its Helio X30 SoC on TSMC's 10-nm process, as well. That SoC could arrive sometime this year.

Not so fast, Intel says. The company points out that pitch measurements are just one characteristic of a semiconductor product, and it feels that using these measurements alone to characterize process capabilities isn't painting a complete picture.

Instead, the company argues that a more useful measure of process advancement is to consider the density of logic transistors that a given process can achieve, independent of its node. With modern process technologies, the company suggests that measuring logic density using megatransistors per square millimeter (henceforth MTr/mm²) offers a better picture of what a given process can do.

Intel Senior Fellow Mark Bohr says the company is modeling this metric using a theoretical logic block comprising 60% NAND gates (not to be confused with an NAND flash cell) as a simple structure and 40% scan flip-flops to represent more complex structures.

The company introduced this metric using its 14-nm FinFET process as an example. That process can achieve 37.5 MTr/mm², compared to 29 MTr/mm² in what is presumably TSMC's 16-nm process and 30.5 MTr/mm² in GlobalFoundries' 14-nm FinFET technology. Intel says that at worst, its 14-nm process is still 25% denser than what its competitors can achieve, something that traditional n-nm feature sizes alone don't capture.

Intel extended this measure to account for its guesses at how its competitors' 10-nm-class products will stack up by this transistor-density measure, since the company openly admits that it hasn't had the opportunity to reverse-engineer any shipping 10-nm products yet. Still, the blue team estimates its competitors' 10-nm processes will offer only slightly higher logic density than its own 14-nm FinFET process—three years after chips fabricated on that tech began shipping.

The point of all this horn-tooting is that Intel believes its 14-nm process has plenty of life left in it. As we first saw with its Kaby Lake CPUs, Intel isn't producing just two generations of chips on a given process node any longer. As part of the company's "process-architecture-optimize" product strategy, Kaby chips are fabricated on what Intel calls a "14nm+" process, and it intends to perform another round of optimizations to produce a "14nm++" version of that process.

14nm++ is claimed to offer 25% greater performance at a given power level than the unoptimized 14nm process first used to produce Broadwell and Skylake chips, or as much as 52% less power consumption for the same level of performance. In fact, Intel's projections show that the transistor performance of 14nm++ will actually exceed that of its first generation of 10-nm products. Expect to see 14nm++ underpin Intel's rumored Coffee Lake CPUs later this year.