Next Gen Graphics and Process Migration: 20 nm and Beyond
What is the Point of this Editorial?
Many people were waiting on a true, next generation GPU to be released at this time. While the Hawaii GPU from AMD is a new (and potentially exciting) part, it is not the big jump that many were hoping for. It looks to compete with the GTX TITAN, but it will not leapfrog that part. It will probably end up faster, but by a couple of percentage points. It will not be the big jump we have seen in the past such as going from a GTX 580 or HD 6970 to a GTX 680 or HD 7970.
Until 20 nm HKMG becomes available for production, we are in for a wait. TSMC expects to be able to provide mass quantities of these parts by Q3 2014, but that is not entirely set in stone. My gut feeling here is that TSMC will be pretty close to that timeline and we would expect to see 20 nm GPUs hitting the market in around a year from now. The problem that we are potentially looking at could very well be heat and power constraints holding these designs back. I do not doubt that it will be a nice jump in terms of performance from these next gen parts, but the use of 20 nm bulk will limit the potential of these products from a power consumption standpoint.
The NVIDIA GK110, which powers the GTX Titan and GTX 780, is a huge chip which packs in over 7 billion transistors. Expect to see this (and possibly a refreshed version) be the top end chip for a while.
If GLOBALFOUNDRIES has the ability to economically research, develop, and produce parts on 20 nm FD-SOI, they could be hitting one out of the park. The industry is clamoring for a product that can match the power characteristics of Intel’s 22 nm process. Intel’s Baytrail products are causing much concern for the ARM folks, though it will still be a while before Intel can ingratiate itself into many of the major handheld manufacturers who have longstanding partnerships with companies such as Qualcomm and Samsung. 3D FinFETs from TSMC are still at least 2 years away on 20 nm, not to mention sub-20 nm lines like 16 nm and 14 nm products that have been described by pure-play foundries.
Intel is also very close to production of 14 nm parts towards the end of this year. The 14 nm process is again Tri-Gate based with bulk silicon wafers. Intel claims that it can adequately control power and clockspeed, but I find it telling that the first products to be introduced on 14 nm are BGA only based Broadwell parts. On the desktop there will be a Haswell refresh at 22 nm. This indicates that 14 nm will again be a nice step up in transistor density and low speed power consumption, but for desktop and workstation applications it might not be entirely adequate. Beyond 14 nm Intel is in fact looking at FD-SOI very carefully. In the end, materials are king when it comes to process technology. We have also just learned that Intel is delaying the Broadwell introduction for at least a quarter due to unacceptable defect levels on their 14 nm process with this particular product. Even with billions in R&D and some of the most talented engineers in the industry, Intel still faces many problems with their introduction of advanced process nodes.
For the pure-play foundries they will have to rely on FinFET technology to go below 20 nm. We will see a good mix of bulk and FD-SOI products, though we have no idea who else ST-Micro will license FD-SOI to. The combination of FinFET/FD-SOI holds a lot of promise, but we are still at least three years away from such an implementation.
It was all downhill for process technology after they allowed Allyn into a Fab. He ruins everything.
The long and short of it is that we can expect longer time intervals between releases of next-generation GPU architectures as they are being constrained by the very latest process technology available. 20 nm bulk will be one year from now, 20 nm FD-SOI is at least 1.5 years away, and any process node below that appropriate for GPUs will be another 3 years. AMD and NVIDIA will have to do a lot of work to implement next generation features without breaking transistor budgets. They will have to do more with less, essentially. Either that or we will just have to deal with a much slower introduction of next generation parts. Marketing and product segmentation will rear their ugly heads, and we will see a very slow reduction in prices from when a product is introduced. We have been spoiled for the past 18 years, but it seems like the good times are over and a whole lot of work is ahead of both designers and foundries.
We still have many years ahead of us for product advancement, and that will continue until we start seeing the 7 nm to 5 nm process nodes. After that, we are in for some rough times. Quantum physics will start to derail silicon based chips and we will have to move to more exotic materials to keep pace. This is all assuming that EUV will actually work as intended. If that does not happen, then we will have to look at other potential lithography measures such as x-ray. There are many, many challenges ahead of the process technology people, and until some of these basic problems are solved we will likely never again see the rapid march of technology that we have experienced since the birth of the silicon transistor some 50 years ago.