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New 45nm Chips from Intel

Original Article Date: 2008-01-03

In this article I thought I'd bring you the latest news from Intel, who have once again broken the size barrier in releasing new Core 2 and Xeon processors built on 45nm technology. And, for the first time since the 1960s, Intel have changed the way their transistors "gate" inside their CPUs.

What's in a nanometer?

Intel have just released their new Core 2 and Xeon processors built upon 45nm circuitry. This is a reduction from the previous generation of processors built on 65nm circuitry. But when you see "nm" after the number what does it actually mean?

"nm" is short for "nanometer". 45nm, for instance, is 45 x 10-9 meters (0.000,000,045m), or 45 millionths of a millimeter. Micro-circuitry and micro-processors probably got their name from the fact that they used circuitry etched onto silicon where the width of the conductive path of each "wire" was measured in microns, or micrometers.

Chip process technology has come so far in the last decade or so, however, that we are now closer to the nanometer than the micron when it comes to the size of the conductive path in processor circuitry. The following table shows how the main "process" (as the method is called when it manufactures chips with the given characteristic conductive path diameter) has shrunk from 1.5 microns (1,500nm) in 1982 to only 45nm with the release of today's Intel chips.

Year Processor Process
1982 80286 1500nm
1986 80386 1500nm
1989 80486 800nm
1993 Pentium (P5) 800nm
1994 Pentium (P54) 600nm
1995 Pentium (P54CS) 350nm
1997 Pentium II (Klamath) 350nm
1998 Pentium II (Deschutes) 250nm
1999 Pentium III (Katmai) 250nm
1999 Pentium III (Coppermine) 180nm
2000 Pentium 4 (Willamette) 180nm
2002 Pentium 4 (Northwood) / Xeon (Prestonia) 130nm
2003 AMD Opteron (Sledgehammer) 130nm
2004 Pentium 4 (Prescott) / Xeon (Nocona) 90nm
2005 AMD Opteron (Venus/Troy/Athens) 90nm
2006 Core 2 (Conroe) / Xeon (5000/5100/5300 series) 65nm
2007 AMD Opteron (Barcelona) 65nm
2008 Core 2 (Penryn) / Xeon (5400 series) 45nm

So perhaps soon we might start using the terms nanocircuitry and nanoprocessor as it relates to mainstream computing hardware?

What's this "K" all about?

As the size of micro-processor circuitry has reduced, the problem of leakage of current from one side of a transistor gate to another has increased, due to electrical field transmission over the smaller "gaps". In order to counteract this problem, Intel has, for the first time since 1960, changed the material that insulates one side of their transistors from the other.

Since the invention of the microchip, semiconductor manufacturers have used silicon dioxide as the insulating material between the two sides of a transistor gate. Now, with the introduction of the the new 45nm circuitry, Intel has made the shift to a Hafnium based compound as the insulator. Hafnium, a transition metal similar to Zirconium, has a peculiarly high "K", which makes it ideal for this application. "K" is a constant that relates to the permittivity of electrical fields through a given material, compared to a vacuum. A low-K compound will actually "amplify" the electrical fields passing through it, whilst a high-K will greatly impede such fields.

Photo courtesy Intel Corp

So a high-K material like Hafnium aids greatly in the reduction of leakage currents in transistor gates by impeding the electrical field trying to reach across the voltage gap.

The New 45nm Xeon 5400 Series CPUs in Systems Now

The reduced process size seems to lead to real-world advantages in performance and power consumption. Intel have claimed up to 30% higher performance for most high-performance computing (HPC) applications (5400 series quad core vs 5300 series quad core, both at 3.0GHz clock speed) and up to 50% higher performance for optimized applications. Also, Intel have claimed up to 38% higher performance per watt over an equivalent 5300 series quad core CPU.

45nm Xeon CPUs are now available and can be integrated into our standard line-up of servers and workstations right now. They are available in 1333MHz and 1600MHz front-side bus, and 80W or 120W versions, with clock speeds from 2.0GHz to 3.20GHz. Low-voltage 50W versions will become available in the next few months. A full list of CPU options can be found our two most popular Intel dual-socket server and workstation pages.

As always, if you have any questions about this technology, and how it can relate to new machines for your business, I'm available to assist you.

Best regards,

Ben Ranson
Chief Systems Engineer