The year in Power Architecture technology: The year in microprocessors

Discover the themes that attracted and bedeviled the microprocessor industry in 2004

From spintronics to clockless CPUs, 2004 was a year of process and research in the microprocessor industry. This article offers a month-by-month look at the highlights of the 2004 microprocessor timeline.


Kane Scarlett (, developerWorks Editor, IBM 

Kane ScarlettKane Scarlett is a technology journalist/analyst with 20 years in the business, working for such publishers as National Geographic, Population Reference Bureau, Miller Freeman, and IDG, and managing, editing, and writing for such august journals as JavaWorld, LinuxWorld, and of course, developerWorks.

22 December 2004

Microprocessor themes of 2004

2004 was all about process and research. On the one hand was the struggle to find alternatives to lead solder, since lead will be banned from electrical and electronic equipment by EU legislation set to take effect on January 1, 2006 (WEEE/ROHS (Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment / Restriction of Hazardous Substances); and because disposal of lead-containing waste in Japan already warrants a hefty surcharge.

On the other hand, practical, traditional-physics limitations in manufacturing (quality and yield issues) and operating (cooling, electron leakage, and so on) in ever-shrinking, more densely packed chips, prompted paths into the quantum computing world, requiring companies to experiment with materials as well as architecture and implementation. The long-awaited and much-debated tech including spintronics, the use of light instead of electricity for digital logic -- and even clockless CPUs -- all got more serious attention than heretofore. Nanotechnology and dual cores also took the stage, and everybody wanted to have some 90nm process.

A month-by-month glance at the microprocessor space shows these themes in finer detail. Each month begins with a brief summary to give context to the listed items.


In January, research gets off to a rousing start, especially research into new materials to thwart the problems that arise when you create smaller transistors and pack more of them in tinier areas -- problems such as electrical leakage and overheating. An openness that comes with adopting an open systems philosophy also seems evident as one chip manufacturer hires another to produce its microprocessors and several companies use chips from competitors in various products.


New technologies and techniques for producing chips is a recurring theme in February, all with the goal of finding a consistent way to beat the emerging 90nm standard. Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography and immersion lithography are still the best candidates to beat the limitations except that cost at present is prohibitive.

Add-ons to chips show up as AMD incorporates network security to its Au1550 processor. As the year goes on, others will add features to chips. Two efforts showcase silicon-on-insulator techniques: A low-power Cell chip project entered into by IBM, Sony, and Toshiba; and the IBM PowerPC® 970FX, constructed by employing SOI, strained silicon, and copper wiring techniques.


Spintronics, the ability to determine and alter the magnetic directional state of a particle, gathers momentum as a potential direction to increase data in a smaller space. Spintronics adds another set of data-setting variables: Instead of just being able to set data due to charge (positive or negative, 1 or 0), you can also set data due to magnetic positioning (up or down). This makes the concept of quantum computing a much more real proposition.

Research into new materials and old materials processed in new ways continues. Developers also struggle with common problems such as how to cool the ever hotter, denser microprocessors.

A Swedish company makes an Internet-capable paper computer (circuits are printed with conductive inks).


Transistor technology takes a leap when the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) makes a double gate transistor with 5nm gates. On the downside, many chip fabricators are smarting from the problems of migrating from a 130nm process to a 90nm one.

In research, reduction in size causes Moore's Law to increase to three and a half years (42 months). The nano-debate continues, but the majority still sees a pure CMOS future.


The US government invests in nanoimprint advances and new techniques to battle overheating, lithography limitations, and SOI unreliability. AMD introduces a buffer-overflow flag to its processors (and several competitors decide to support it). Sony starts testing Cell processors. We say goodbye to both AMD's Athlon XP and to the Intel Netburst architecture.


The Semiconductor Industry Association invests in nanotech to help companies compete in post-CMOS technologies. IBM experiments with germanium-on-insulator technology that could allow chips to communicate with other system components through rapid light pulses and introduces a timing flow method for 65, 90, and 130nm chips that could help minimize power consumption.

AMD completes the design of AMD 64 dual-core processors. Intel attempts to stop overclocking by introducing a sensor circuit that shuts the system down, but several motherboard makers thwart the "governor" -- this will be an endless back-and-forth struggle. Intel also completes its transition to the 90nm process.


Analysts say that only small percentage of fab plants use 300mm wafers which means there's a way to go before this process can be considered adopted. eFUSE technology lets processors respond to changing conditions and re-optimize their performance parameters on the fly.


Efforts into bio-engineering of semiconductor materials are explored as another avenue to combat the problems of packing more in a smaller space. HP issues the last ever Alpha processor system. Toyota R&D fashions low-defect silicon carbide wafers, a substrate with properties that may help keep chips cool.

AMD demonstrates the first dual-core x86 processor. Sony debuts a 64-bit MIPS R4000 chip for Playstation Portable, a chip with drastically reduced power consumption needs. Convergence of multiple-vendor systems continues.


TSMC incorporates immersion lithography techniques (for 90nm process on 300mm wafers) into production line, making it the first large-scale fabricator to take this technology out of the lab and into production. Spintronics gets a leap forward as an IBM Almaden research team discovers how to measure the energy necessary to flip the magnetic orientation of a single atom.

AMD's lead in workstation market (thanks to Opteron) causes HP to can 64-bit Itanium workstation production. Freescale demonstrates dual-core SOI PowerPC processors. Sun's UltraSPARC IV debuts multi-chip threading capabilities.

You've seen what was, now tell us your predictions for what will be! The year 2004 saw the use of spintronics and clockless CPUs, but what about 2005? This month's chips challenge asks you to use your imagination and power of prediction to tell us what to expect in the coming year. The most interesting, creative -- yet still plausible -- ideas will be featured in the next chips challenge article, and the top winner will receive a developerWorks t-shirt! Send your entries to the Power Architecture editors by December 31, 2004. Don't wait until it's too late!


Although now becoming a de facto standard in fabrication, the transition to 90nm is not without its problems, and UMC's and TSMC's 90nm foundries struggle with the costs of the transition. Sun announces that after UltraSPARC IV+, it will deliver future chip fabrication to Fujitsu.

nVidia releases a chip with a hardware firewall and AMD patents a way to place a thermo-electric cooler into chipsets, and Intel cancels 4GHz Pentium 4 to focus on multi-core efforts.


Plastic electronics start to be considered for more uses, and Infineon demonstrates a new technique in which two chips are sandwiched together and interconnect among hundreds of surface contact pads.

ARM plans a design center in India. By 2008, China will knock Japan out of the top spot as consumer of chips.

AMD sees a bright future, and signs a second fabrication partner to start in 2006. IBM and Sony debut a Cell processor workstation; IBM also offers a commercial version of its Blue Gene supercomputer -- with dual-core POWER5 processors (the original uses dual-core 440s). Intel debuts Itanium Madison, probably its last 130nm chip. Texas Instruments makes plans to convert from 200 to 300mm wafer process.


Out with the old, in with the soon-to-be obsolete

Thanks for spending time with developerWorks this year. If you'd like to comment on events and happenings in the microprocessor space, please e-mail your thoughts and opinions to the Power Architecture editors. And don't forget to send in your microprocessor predictions for 2005 (see the sidebar, Looking ahead), and watch this space again next year to see if your predictions become history!

Here is looking forward to a great 2005!



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ArticleTitle=The year in Power Architecture technology: The year in microprocessors