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IBM GATE-CRASHES chip world, boldly exclaims: 'We've cracked the 7nm barrier'

When can you buy new wonder processors? Don't ask

Broadwell? Pfft

They then managed to develop new process technologies that allowed them to stack the fins of their FinFET transistors closer together, so they're stacked at a pitch of less than 30nm. By comparison, the fins on Intel's 14nm "Broadwell" process are stacked at a 42nm pitch.

Finally, they managed to use multiple levels of extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography to achieve area scaling that IBM said was nearly 50 per cent better than today's most advanced 10nm process technology – which hasn't even made it to market yet.

"These efforts could result in at least a 50 per cent power/performance improvement for the next generation of systems that will power the Big Data, cloud and mobile era," IBM said – which of course it would.

But for this new tech to have any real impact, IBM & Co will have to produce some real 7nm chips, not just a few working transistors. That's still some way off; industry observers suggest we won't see commercial 7nm parts hit the market until 2020 at the earliest.

What's more, moving past 7nm to 5nm and beyond is going to be even harder than solving the 7nm problem. For one thing, SiGe channel material probably won't do the job. IBM's chip boffins will likely need to look to other materials, such as gallium-arsenide or carbon nanotubes, or to new techniques like silicon photonics, neurosynaptic computing, or quantum computing.

Chipping away at Chipzilla

IBM said it was exploring all of these areas as part of its ongoing $3bn R&D extravaganza – and indeed, now that it's sold off its fabs to GlobalFoundries, it has transferred all of its remaining chipmaking brains to its IBM Research division. Still, there's no telling any of its big bets will pay off.

Plus, it's got competition nipping at its heels, including Intel and TSMC, the latter of which has boasted that it expects to be ready to start baking 10nm chips in 2016.

Don't count IBM out, though. It may have unloaded its PC and x86 server businesses, but it still has its Power processor line, and plenty of skin in the hardware game where it comes to such compute-intensive applications as Big Data analytics, HPC, machine learning, mainframe transaction processing, and more.

"The impact these [7nm] chips will have on Power and z systems will depend on the needs of our IBM products, but we intend to incorporate 7 nanometer into the roadmaps for IBM systems in the future," a Big Blue spokesperson told our sister site, The Platform.

In short, Big Blue needs to push chip technology forward, and hunger is a powerful motivator. ®

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