GlobalFoundries licenses Samsung process tech, grants AMD access to FinFETs

As you may know, AMD's former manufacturing arm is now a part of GlobalFoundries, which manufactures chips on contract for multiple customers while remaining the source for AMD's highest-performance CPUs. Like AMD before it, GlobalFoundries is part of the Common Platform Alliance along with Samsung and IBM. The three firms share R&D costs and implement similar techniques for building chips.

Today, the relationship between a couple of those partners shifted fundamentally when GlobalFoundries announced that it has licensed Samsung's process technology.

The tech being licensed is the next major step forward, a 14-nm process that uses a new transistor structure known as FinFETs or, as Intel calls them, tri-gate transistors. Intel made the transition to FinFETs at its 22-nm process node and saw some fairly dramatic benefits in terms of switching speed and power efficiency (which are often two sides of the same coin in process tech discussions). Other firms in the industry have struggled to reap the usual power and speed benefits when moving below 28-nm process geometries without FinFETs. Most of these firms have scheduled FinFETs for the 16- or 14-nm nodes, with several delays. Meanwhile, even Intel has delayed its 14-nm process due to technical difficulties.

Samsung appears to have succeeded in developing a capable 14-nm FinFET process. Here's how the press release describes the technology being licensed:

Developed by Samsung and licensed to GLOBALFOUNDRIES, the 14nm FinFET process is based on a technology platform that has already gained traction as the leading choice for high-volume, power-efficient system-on-chip (SoC) designs. The platform taps the benefits of three-dimensional, fully depleted FinFET transistors to overcome the limitations of planar transistor technology, enabling up to 20 percent higher speed, 35 percent less power and 15 percent area scaling over industry 20nm planar technology.

At last year's Common Platform Technology Forum, GlobalFoundries shared its own roadmap for 14-nm process technology. During that same event, the Alliance members admitted that their manufacturing methods were diverging since their customers preferred customization over fab-to-fab portability.

Today's news, then, marks a change in direction. GlobalFoundries will so closely implement Samsung's technology that the two partners are once again talking about portability between fabs:

Through a proven level of fab synchronization never previously achieved outside of a single company, Samsung and GLOBALFOUNDRIES will use a coordinated copy-smart approach involving materials, process recipes, integration and tools. The company will also run fab-sync test chips on a regular basis to ensure that the fabs are the 14nm FinFET process exactly the same.

GlobalFoundries confirms that this news means the end of the road for its own 14XM process. The firm says Samsung's process tech has two key advantages over 14XM. Samsung's tech is further along in development, so the schedule is more attractive, and Samsung's 14-nm FinFET tech provides better area scaling by cramming more gates into a given area.

This licensing arrangement instantly makes the chip foundry business quite a bit more interesting. Samsung famously manufactures SoCs for its biggest rival and a huge customer: Apple. Now, some or all of Apple's production could move to GlobalFoundries fairly easily, assuming something else (like a rumored move to TSMC) doesn't change the picture entirely.

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of this licensing deal will be AMD, who gains access to a capable 14-nm FinFET tech for the production of its future CPUs and SOCs. AMD's Kaveri APUs actually ran slower than their predecessors after transitioning from GloFo's 32-nm SOI process to 28-nm bulk silicon. Meanwhile, AMD competes most directly with the process tech leader, Intel.

AMD veep Lisa Su provided an appropriately vague-but-positive statement for the press release announcing the deal:

"This unprecedented collaboration will result in a global capacity footprint for 14nm FinFET technology that provides AMD with enhanced capabilities to bring our innovative IP into silicon on leading-edge technologies," said Lisa Su, senior vice president and general manager of Global Business Units at AMD. "The work that GLOBALFOUNDRIES and Samsung are doing together will help AMD deliver our next generation of groundbreaking products with new levels of processing and graphics capabilities to devices ranging from low-power mobile devices, to next-generation dense servers to high-performance embedded solutions."

If in fact AMD has some capable new CPU architectures in the works, the availability of a solid 14-nm FinFET process could be the final piece needed to restore the firm to competitiveness with Intel.

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