Foundry Files Blog

Breathing New Life into the Foundry-Fabless Business Model

  • By: Communications
  • August 21, 2012
  • Category: Technology

By Mike Noonen

Early last week, GLOBALFOUNDRIES jointly announced with ARM another important milestone in our longstanding collaboration to deliver optimized SoC solutions for ARM® processor designs on GF’s leading-edge process technology. We’re extending the agreement to include our 20nm planar offering, next-generation 3D FinFET transistor technology, and ARM’s Mali™ GPUs.

Our collaboration with ARM goes back many years, and its evolution parallels some of the critical developments in the larger semiconductor industry during the same timeframe. We began this work back when the 65nm node was the bleeding edge and our biggest concern was the integration of strained silicon to boost electron mobility. (Those were the days!) Of course today we face a daunting list of new challenges ranging from multiple patterning and EUV lithography to new device architectures such as high-k metal gate (HKMG) and FinFET. But the goal remains essentially the same: work together to deliver optimized designs and process technology to boost performance, reduce power consumption, and drive the value proposition of scaling for our customers.

ARM and GF are collaborating to enable next-generation devices on 20nm and FinFET process technologies.

Yet this new landscape presents a number of challenges beyond the technical hurdles of shrinking transistors. Industry observers have long predicted that the fabless-foundry business model has some cracks in it. We in the foundry industry tend to dismiss such chatter as we continue to enjoy growth rates that outpace the overall semiconductor industry. But while we firmly believe the foundry model has a bright future, like all living organisms, we must continue to evolve. There are warning signs, both technical and economic, emerging in the foundry business that warrant our attention, and in fact require a re-thinking of how best to apply our resources and energy.

The solution, ironically, may be a move toward a more IDM-like model. Strategic collaboration that creates a ‘virtual IDM-like interface’ to chip design companies will help further close the gap between process teams at the manufacturing companies and design teams at the fabless companies. Collaboration – early, often and deep – is really the only practical approach given the cost and complexities involved.

The concept of the “Virtual IDM” is on full display in our partnership with ARM, perhaps most prominently in the project we launched in 2009 to optimize ARM’s Cortex™-A series processors on our 28nm technology. We worked closely together to develop a Technology Qualification Vehicle (TQV) strategy that allows us to optimize our advanced process technology for customer designs based on Cortex-A series processors. The solution is much more than a standard test chip. Each TQV is designed to emulate a full specification SoC and aims to improve performance, lower power consumption and facilitate a faster path to market for foundry customers.

This early and deep collaboration has resulted in several significant milestones, including the world’s first foundry optimized Cortex-A9 processorPOP™ IP for the Cortex-A9 processor operating at 1.6GHz on our 28nm-SLP technology, and a demonstration of more than 2GHz on our 28nm high-performance technology. This platform builds on the existing ARM Artisan® physical IP platforms for GF processes at 65nm, 55nm and 28nm.

Now we are extending this collaboration to include true joint optimization for 20nm technologies and beyond, as well as a new focus on GPUs, which are becoming increasingly important in today’s smart mobile devices. The TQV strategy has already been scaled to 20nm and is an integral part of our process development, with a 20nm test chip implementation currently running through our Fab 8 in Saratoga County, N.Y.

And while we are seeing great dividends from this collaboration, the real hard work is only just beginning. We are now leveraging historical synergies from 28nm and 20nm planar technology to enable a smooth migration to next-generation, three-dimensional FinFET technology. One of the well publicized benefits of FinFET technology is its superior low-power attributes. The intrinsic capability of the 3D transistor to operate at a lower Vdd translates to longer battery life, which is heavily sought after in performance-hungry mobile computing applications. Our collaboration is focused tightly on this sweet spot in the market, where designers are looking for the optimum combination of performance, power-consumption, area, and cost. Our co-development work with ARM will enable a faster time to FinFET SoC solutions for customers using ARM’s next generation of mobile SoC IP for both CPUs and GPUs.

So clearly the foundry-fabless business model is not collapsing, but rather adapting to meet the challenges of today. Success will be a result of much closer joint development at the technology definition level, early engagement at the architectural stage, and a more integrated and cooperative ecosystem – precisely the kind of collaboration that we’re demonstrating with our valued partner ARM.

This post originally appeared on ARM’s Soc Design blog.

Mike Noonen is Executive Vice President, Worldwide Marketing and Sales, for GF. In this role, he is responsible for global customer relationships as well as all marketing, sales, customer engineering and quality functions. 

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