Wednesday, July 9, 2014

IBM announces research programs committed to the future of post-silicon systems

 By Rich Ptak

IBM is no stranger to committing large sums of research and development funds for longer term benefits. Want some examples? There was their early investment in massively parallel computing (Deep Blue and Blue Gene) to reach commercial viability. Their investments in multicore systems such as Power 4 and 5, which facilitated and sped the consolidation of the Unix market. Most recently was their investment in cognitive computing with the Jeopardy winning Watson, that is now yielding commercial as well as societal advances and benefits in the fields of finance, banking, retail, medical and healthcare.

Now, for the first time, IBM has unveiled its plans to invest $3 billion dollars over 5 years into a research program to enable and develop the next generation of semiconductor technologies and chips that are the building blocks of computer systems. Countering rumors of its abandoning hardware and systems based on its sales of business lines to Lenovo, IBM provides concrete proof that it has no intention of getting out of the systems business. The challenges relating to energy, heat, processing time, bandwidth, size, storage, etc. driven by applications for cloud and big data are emerging just as foreseeable physical and manufacturing limits of existing technologies are being reached. 

These investments will extend IBM’s innovation beyond today’s semiconductor technology breakthroughs into the leadership position in advanced technologies required to deal with evolving and emerging challenges.  Such efforts are necessary to develop and deliver in the next ten years the as yet unknown, fundamentally different systems needed to overcome physical and scaling limitations of techniques and technology.

IBM is sponsoring two research programs to address the challenges. The first will address the challenges of the physics that limits using and manufacturing existing silicon technology. Scaling down from today’s 22 nanometers to 10 nanometers is doable for the next few years; moving beyond that to 7 nanometers and smaller requires new manufacturing tools and techniques currently being researched.

The second program looks to the develop ways to manufacture and apply computer chips using radically new technologies in the post-silicon era. New materials and circuit architecture designs are being researched along with techniques for manufacturing, development and application. In addition, to avoid disruption, systems are required to bridge between existing and new technologies.

Projects are underway or beginning in areas that include quantum computing, neuron based systems, carbon nanotubes, silicon photonics, neurosynaptic computing, etc. IBM’s Research team will consist of over a thousand exiting and newly hired scientists and engineers. Research teams will be located in Albany and Yorktown, NY, Almaden, CA and Zurich, Switzerland.

 The Final Word

IBM has been a leader with an enviable track record in creating breakthroughs and innovation in CMOS and silicon technology including inventing or first implementing single cell DRAM, chemically amplified photoresists, High-k gate dialectrics, etc. They aren’t alone in addressing the problems of existing semiconductor technology and researching new technologies. But, they are certainly among the leaders in the breadth and depth of their efforts. In addition to its own projects, IBM continues and will continue to fund and collaborate with university semiconductor research as they continue to support such private-public partnerships as the NanoElectronics Initiative (NRI), Semiconductor Research Network (STARnet), and the Global Research Consortium (GRC) of the Semiconductor Research Corp.
Such efforts will all contribute and combine to create the next level of processing power that will enable and facilitate the move to eradicate blocks to progress and eliminate boundaries compute capabilities. Such innovation is necessary to drive a new class of transactions, create the capability to process a sensor-based world, enable a new level of encryption, etc. and make it possible for a new generation to identify and solve previously inconceivable or unsolvable problems. The investment and effort that IBM is making gives clear proof of their continuing interest in and dedication to delivering innovative systems.