IBM borrows Power6 design for telephony chips

IBM announced plans to use silicon-on-insulator technology by 2008 to improve the custom chips it makes for telephony platforms

IBM is pulling out the heavy artillery in its quest to build custom chips for both telephony backbone and handheld wireless devices, announcing a processor family built with silicon-on-insulator (SOI) technology that is usually reserved for server processors.

By borrowing SOI technology from its line of Power server chips -- including the top-shelf Power6 -- IBM will achieve a 30 percent performance gain compared to chips using standard CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) technology, the company said Tuesday. And by building it on a scale of 45-nanometer feature sizes, IBM will achieve higher performance than comparable 65nm chips.

IBM will launch this Cu-45HP (high performance) custom chip in early 2008, intended for manufacturers of switches and routers as well as cell phones and portable gaming systems. IBM will design a customized version of the ASIC (application specific integrated circuit) for each new client platform, said Bernard Meyerson, an IBM fellow and chief technology officer for IBM's Systems and Technology Group.

The company already builds ASICs for the telephony market, but the new design will allow it to create more powerful designs in less time and at lower cost, he said.

To boost power-efficiency, IBM is using 45-nm architecture embedded DRAM (dynamic RAM) instead of SRAM (static RAM) in the chip. Although DRAM has three to four times more memory density than SRAM, the company has never before used it for on-chip data storage because it is "pathetically slow," Meyerson said.

IBM solved that problem with a recent advance that improves DRAM read/write data access speeds. Chips run faster and use less electricity when they use data stored on the processor itself instead of fetching that data from another location on the circuit board, he said.

Once it launches the new chip, IBM expects to quickly reach full manufacturing capacity. Although the chip uses a new combination of technologies, IBM already builds processors with each of the components, such as the SOI-based processors it makes for gaming consoles including Sony Computer Entertainment's PlayStation 3, Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Nintendo's Wii.

Despite the new features, IBM is announcing the Cu-45HP at a challenging time in the global chip market. Worldwide sales of semiconductors reached US$19.9 billion in April, showing a decline from March as average selling prices continued to drop, according to a report released Monday by the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA). From January through April, sales were down by nearly 2 percent from the same period of 2006, the report said.

The revenue slump occurred because prices have sunk faster than a modest rise in demand for consumer electronics. That consumer demand has bolstered the number of unit shipments in the market, but chip makers are collecting less money because of tumbling prices for many types of chips, including microprocessors, DRAMs and NAND flash, according to the SIA.

Also on Tuesday, IBM announced new digital and analog semiconductors for mobile handsets and other wireless products. They include the SiGe BiCMOS 5PAe, a silicon-germanium-based analog product for making efficient power amplifiers in cell phones and WiMAX applications, the SiGe BiCMOS 6WL, an entry-level version of the company's existing technology for high-volume consumer electronics including cell phones and GPS (global positioning system) devices, and the CMOS 11LP, a product design to improve power efficiency in handset design.

IBM is selling the 6WL design kits now, and plans to launch the other two products later in 2007.

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Ben Ames

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