Betting big on chip technology, IBM has announced plans to invest $3 billion over the next five years in two research and early stage development programs. In short, IBM says it wants to push the limits of semiconductor innovation to meet next generation demands of cloud computing and Big Data systems.
Big Blue’s first research program targets “7 nanometer and beyond” silicon technology. The goal there is to address the serious physical challenges faced by today's semiconductor scaling techniques.
A separate project will focus on developing alternative tech for post-silicon era chips, with solutions that can overcome the physical limitations of today's silicon.
"The question is not if we will introduce 7 nanometer technology into manufacturing, but rather how, when, and at what cost?" said John Kelly, Senior Vice President at IBM Research. Kelly said that IBM engineers, scientists, and partners are already working on the materials science and device engineering required to meet the growing demands of cloud computing, Big Data, and cognitive systems.
IBM hopes that its plans to invest $3 billion will ensure that the company can produce the necessary innovations to meet the demands of these computationally intensive systems.
A Terrific Challenge
Explaining its strategy in further detail, IBM addressed how cloud computing and Big Data applications are creating new challenges that today's chip technology isn't sufficient to handle. Bandwidth to memory, high-speed communication, and device power consumption are getting more challenging -- and more critical -- all the time.
To its advantage, IBM already holds more than 500 patents for technologies that will drive advancements at 7nm and beyond silicon. According to Big Blue’s count, that’s more than twice the nearest competitor. The company is certain that investing more to drive faster invention and product development on this front will differentiate its computing systems for cloud computing and Big Data analytics. At least one analyst agrees.
"Scaling to 7nm and below is a terrific challenge, calling for deep physics competencies in processing nano materials affinities and characteristics,” said Richard Doherty, Technology Research director at The Envisioneering Group. “IBM is one of a very few companies that has repeatedly demonstrated this level of science and engineering expertise.”
The Next 10 Years
Beyond new materials, new architectures, and innovative device concepts, IBM has identified power dissipation as a fundamental challenge for nanoelectronic circuits.
Big Blue explains the challenge this way: Think of a leaky water faucet -- even after closing the valve as far as possible, water continues to drip. That, the company said, is similar to the modern transistor in that energy is constantly "leaking" or being lost or wasted in the off-state.
"In the next 10 years, computing hardware systems will be fundamentally different as our scientists and engineers push the limits of semiconductor innovations to explore the post-silicon future," said Tom Rosamilia, Senior VP of IBM's Systems and Technology Group.
It may sound like a whole of hype, but Rosamilia claims that, "IBM Research and Development teams are creating breakthrough innovations that will fuel the next era of computing systems."
We turned to tech-industry analyst Brad Shimmin at Current Analysis, to get his expert opinion on IBM's $3 billion investment. He told us IBM’s bet here parallels what competitors, particularly Oracle and SAP, are doing to construct hardware and software platforms that support the scale the industry is demanding.
“For those Big Data systems in the cloud, it is not easy to create a scalable solution, particularly when you start talking about shared multi-tenant opportunities,” Shimmin said. The underlying architecture of the rack server itself has to be "very efficient and effective at moving data around and processing the data in particular. IBM, Cisco and Oracle are engineering systems for that.”
Will IBM's 5-year investment pay off and help put Big Blue at the forefront of technology once again? Indeed, time will tell, as the company returns to its innovation roots.