IBM pumps $3bn in chip tech research to power future cloud needs

IBM will invest $3bn (£1.75bn) over the next five years in the research and development of chip technology to meet cloud needs

IBM will invest $3bn (£1.75bn) over the next five years in the research and development of chip technology to meet the emerging needs of cloud computing infrastructures and data analytics systems.  

The billions of dollars will be divided in two research initiatives. One will focus on the "7 nanometer and beyond” silicon technology and the second on developing alternative technologies for post-silicon era chips using different approaches.

The silicon technology research will help address serious physical challenges that are threatening current semiconductor scaling techniques, while the alternative technologies for post-silicon era chips are required because of the physical limitations of silicon-based semiconductors, said IBM scientists.

Cloud and big data applications are placing new challenges on systems, just as the underlying chip technology is facing numerous significant physical scaling limits, according to IBM. Bandwidth to memory, high-speed communication and device power consumption are becoming increasingly challenging and critical, it said.

The Big Blue’s engineers and scientists from Europe, New York and California will work together on the research.

A significant part of the research funding will be dedicated to areas including carbon nano-electronics, silicon photonics, new memory technologies, and architectures that support quantum and cognitive computing.

Semiconductor experts predict semiconductors will scale down from today's 22 nanometers down to 14 and then 10 nanometers in the next few years. But they warn scaling further, to seven nanometers or lower, by 2020 will require significant investment and innovation in semiconductor architectures as well as invention of new tools and techniques for manufacturing. 

"Scaling to 7-nanometer and below is a terrific challenge, calling for deep physics competencies in processing nano materials affinities and characteristics," said Richard Doherty, technology research director for The Envisioneering Group. 

Analyst firm Gartner has forecast worldwide semiconductor revenue to reach $336bn in 2014, a 6.7% increase from 2013. 

"2014 semiconductor growth is widespread across many chip types and applications," said Bryan Lewis, research vice-president at Gartner.

"The question is not if we will introduce seven-nanometer technology into manufacturing, but rather how, when, and at what cost?" said John Kelly, senior vice-president, IBM Research. "IBM engineers and scientists, along with our partners, are working on the materials science and device engineering required to meet the demands of the emerging system requirements for cloud, big data, and cognitive systems.

“This new investment will ensure we produce the necessary innovations to meet these challenges," Kelly said.

Bridging the gap in the post-silicon era

Silicon transistors, the tiny switches that carry information on a chip, have shrunk in size to the point of physical limitation.

Within a few more generations, classical scaling and shrinkage will no longer yield the sizable benefits of lower power, lower cost and higher-speed processors that the industry has become accustomed to, warned IBM researchers. 

This means there is an urgent need for new materials and circuit architecture designs as the technology industry nears physical scalability limits of the silicon transistor, they said.

Potential alternatives include new materials, such as carbon nanotubes, and non-traditional computational approaches such as neuromorphic computing, cognitive computing, machine learning techniques, and the science behind quantum computing.

IBM’s research will also focus on silicon photonics, quantum computing, neurosynaptic computing, low power transistors, carbon nanotubes, and graphene – all technologies to power the cloud-based systems.

"In the next ten years computing hardware systems will be fundamentally different as our scientists and engineers push the limits of semiconductor innovations to explore the post-silicon future," said Tom Rosamilia, senior vice-president, IBM Systems and Technology Group. "IBM Research and Development teams are creating innovations that will fuel the next era of computing systems."

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