- Reducing size may not be profitable soon
- This will see the demise of Moore's Law
THE end is nigh - at least for the shrinking transistors. According to the 2015 International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS), transistors will stop getting smaller in just five years.
And this will finally bring an end to the so called 'Moore's Law'. Named after the co-founder of Intel, this 'law' is nothing of that sort. It was merely an observation in a 1965 paper that predicted that the number of components in an integrated circuit will double every 18 months. In 1975, looking forward to the next decade, he revised the forecast to doubling every two years.
See this video get an overview of Moore's Law.
The ITRS report forecasts that after 2021, it will no longer be economically possible for companies to shrink the dimensions of transistors in processors. Instead, chip manufacturers will turn to other means of boosting density and performance.
The semiconductor manufacturing industry has been going through a series of consolidations for years now. In 2001, there were 19 companies that were developing and manufacturing logic chips with cutting-edge transistors. Today, there is just Intel, TSMC, Samsung, and GlobalFoundries.
The shrinking of transistors was still a part of the long-term forecast as recently as 2014, when the last ITRS report was released. That report predicted that the physical gate length of transistors would continue to shrink until at least 2028.
So what changed in just two years?
It is purely a question of cost. It is not that it will become technologically impossible to reduce transistor size after 2021, but it will be commercially unrealistic to do so.
Instead of relying on smaller transistors to boost chip density, 3D chip architectures are now gaining traction. The memory industry is already using 3D architectures to boost the capacity of NAND Flash. 3D architectures build chip layers one on top of another, connecting them vertically with nano-scale wires.
If you wish to get a beginner's understanding of 3D chip architectures, watch this video.
There is also another point to remember. For far too long, tech and mainstream journalists had associated the doubling of transistors every 24 months (as per Moore's Law) with the doubling of performance. This ceased to be true in the 1990's.
As chip architectures became complex, a lot of the transistor budget was spent on creating extra internal bridges and data paths instead of pure logic and cache memory. Also, as Intel found out disastrously with its 1.13GHZ Pentium CPU, far too much of the power consumed by the processors was being lost as heat.
Therefore, the news of the demise of the shrinking transistors is not much to cry over. Along with 3D architectures, the chip manufacturing industry is researching new materials and technologies such as optical interconnects. So, in other words, fear not! Your laptops and smartphones will continue to get faster for decades to come.
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