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GlobalFoundries Announces 14XM, Can this Process Get AMD Back into the Game?

GlobalFoundries 14XM Launch

GlobalFoundries delivered a 1-2 punch today, announcing the 14nm process for 2014. The semiconductor maker plans to manufacture chips in 14nm node named "eXtreme Mobility", offering FinFET three-dimensional transistors and Fully Depleted SOI to boot.

Over the past couple of weeks, we've heard quite a lot of rumors about the future of GlobalFoundries. The silent whispers stated that GlobalFoundries is losing money at an alarming rate and that the owner of its owner, Mubadala Abu Dhabi could look into off-loading the foundry onto unnamed third party.

After quite a lot of research, we managed to find out some hard numbers on GlobalFoundries' position and how the management views the firm. Long story short, the firm is in the red – but the amount of greenbacks in red is reducing year on year, and the company might even break even by 2014. Thus, we were not surprised what capital investments the management made over the past six months. First and foremost, the Fully-Depleted SOI was brought from 14nm node all the way to 28nm, enabling current SOI customers (AMD, Microsoft) to continue manufacturing its products using SOI technology.

But the biggest announcement came at the end of the week. In a presentation to media, GlobalFoundries announced the future of manufacturing for the company. The 20nm process, which is scheduled to debut in 2013 will only last for a few months as the bleeding edge process, to be improved with the 14nm process coming in 2014. As you can see, this comes only a year after 20nm and on par with Intel's own 14nm process and Broadwell processors. Note that Intel will not have a low power process before 2015.

The company used several slides to address the problems that torture users of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. As you can see above, the battery technology isn't keeping up with the silicon progress. Moving beyond the mobile devices, the same challenges face the datacenter and the arrival of more efficient designs. Good example for that is SeaMicro, which under AMD's ownership continues to manufacture world's most efficient micro-servers based on both AMD Opteron and Intel Xeon processors, but even that density consumes too much power. As the pioneers of ultra-low-power server processors, 64-bit X-Gene processors from Applied Micro and 64-bit Project Boulder from NVIDIA will change the order. Still, according to GlobalFoundries, all these products need more power efficiency.


14XM FinFET: Shortening the Process Node Transition

The most important aspect of the announced 14nm process is that the time between two process generations is being reduced to a bare minimum. This is the first time GlobalFoundries will be able to switch from one process node to another in mere 12 months. In order to achieve that, the 14nm process will take some of the characteristics of the 20nm-LPM process, which is scheduled to arrive before the end of 2013.

However, one big innovation that 14nm brings is the shift from planar (2D, 2.5D) transistors to a multi-gate FinFET (3D) transistor. The transistor is the reason why this process is being called 14nm, since they're 14nm FinFET transistors sitting on top of 20nm-LPM features. This is quite the standard in the industry, including Intel – who typically manufactured SRAM in one, and logic in another process.

One of biggest FinFET advantages is its operation in ultra-low power environments. By operating at lower voltage, 14nm transistors don't leak as much current and should enable manufacturing of higher-clocked, lower-consuming processors.


Launch Customers?

The presentation ends with a slide featuring several quite significant features. First off, the 14XM (eXtreme Mobility) full suite PDK enables silicon-level designers to tailor their products to the new process node. More importantly, we see that GlobalFoundries made sure they mention special optimizations for GPU makers such as AMD, NVIDIA or Qualcomm. Even though this process is oriented towards SoC designs, the 2014 GPU architectures such as Volcanic Islands will spread from SoC to APU to discrete GPU, integrating regular x86/ARM cores as well. Qualcomm's Snapdragon should reach fourth or fifth generation, with Adreno 500 Series GPU.

We spoke with our sources, and they do not believe that 14XM will only be used for just for low-margin mobile parts. The big prize is how to manufacture high-margin GPU products and professional SoCs for servers that will begin to appear on the market.

GlobalFoundries did not announce launch customers of the 14XM node, but we know it will be manufactured in Fab 8 facility in Malta, New York State. 

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