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Are chip makers listening?

Posted: 29 Nov 2010     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Moore's Law  efficiency  semiconductor industry 

Sehat Sutardja, CEO of Marvell Technology Group opines that chip makers should take up the next challenge—to include the long-ignored dimension of efficiency, if the Moore's Law has to remain intact.

Hidden behind the recent good news in the semiconductor industry is a developing crisis that I fear will spread across the entire electronics industry within a decade, says Sutardja.

Moore's Law is not really a law at all; as Dr. Moore himself regularly reminds us, it is merely a social contract between the semiconductor industry and its customers to keep technology moving forward at an exponential rate. There is no intrinsic reason why Moore's Law must continue. In that case, why do we abide by it? Because whatever the financial costs of keeping up with Moore's Law, the social costs of not doing so would be far greater.

For 50 years, ICs have been powering the world's products and services, thereby driving the world economy. Moore's Law doesn't just describe the pace of innovation in the semiconductor world, but that of life in the modern world. What's the price for this extraordinary pace of change? It may surprise you to learn that the answer is right in front of us.

The standard definition of Moore's Law is that computer chips double in density every two years, but in fact it is much more complex. The law has several dimensions that can be described as different axes of change:

� Size (density). The amount of surface area you have to dedicate to a specific number of transistors gets smaller by the year.

Performance. The same-sized chip will get ever more powerful in terms of memory storage, computation speeds, etc.

� Price. As you make chips smaller, the price will get cheaper; if you rearchitect your design to leverage the inherent speed gain of individual transistors, the price can be reduced even faster. Nevertheless, increasing performance has been the main focus for decades.

Over the past 20 years, the emphasis has been on increasing chip density while keeping the chip size relatively constant and maximising performance and integration. More recently, the process of making more-complex individual processors with ever smaller transistors became prohibitively expensive. Faced with that new reality, the big processor companies shifted to multi-core designs; it worked, but the cost was to abandon one of the three dimensions—size—probably forever.

The good news is that Moore's Law is still intact. We can maintain the pace, but we are at a much greater risk of breaking down.

Or are we?

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