New platform gives ARM-based chips a leg up

ARM has hooked up with IBM, Samsung and others to introduce a manufacturing platform for 32nm and 28nm chips, which should boost ARM's chip architecture in smartphones

A group of semiconductor companies including IBM, ARM and Samsung has introduced a custom chip-manufacturing platform for 32- and 28-nanometre products.

The five company-strong consortium said in its announcement on Monday that the platform will give chip designers a path to the latest production technologies without their having to make billion-dollar investments in fabrication plants.

"Lots of people want to do 32nm and 28nm geometries, but it's very hard to do yourself," Ian Drew, vice president of marketing for chip architecture provider ARM, told ZDNet UK. "As we reduce the geometries, you have to have the fab guys, the physics guys, the electronic design guys, all working together. If you want to go and invest the money, go and do it, but it's much easier to invest the money elsewhere for differentiation."

The platform brings together processor and physical intellectual property from ARM; tools, connectivity intellectual property and design flow from Synopsys; and the 32/28nm process from the alliance of IBM, Samsung and Globalfoundries. The process includes high-k metal gate transistors, a technology first introduced into the market by Intel in 2007, which allow the smaller geometries to run faster and at lower power than their larger predecessors.

The platform lets chip designers choose from a variety of approved design methods, intellectual property suppliers and techniques. The consortium guarantees that the design can be built by any of the chipmakers involved. This ability gives designers the security of multiple sources of supply of the chip.

So far, the consortium says, it has produced 10 test chips in 32- and 28nm, including designs based on ARM's Cortex processor core. This is the design at the heart of many current smartphones and other mobile devices, including HTC's latest Android-based phones and Apple's iPhone and iPad.

Apple's Cortex-based chip, the A4, is also made by Samsung but with the older 45nm process. "32nm... provides a 20-percent performance gain, a 30-percent dynamic power reduction and a 55-percent reduction in power leakage compared to 45nm," the consortium said in its statement.

"We're going for the fab-light as well as the fab-free companies," said Drew, referring to business models where semiconductor companies farm out some or all of their chip manufacturing to third parties. "There are significant performance advantages to [going to] 32nm, and those designs can be scaled to 28nm without major redesign."

The hardware providers in the consortium — IBM, Samsung and Chartered Semiconductor (now owned by Globalfoundries) — formed the Common Platform Alliance in 2006, to provide designers with multiple sources of chips from the three manufacturers without having to redesign for each.


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