IBM to invest $3bn in chip research to support cloud and big data

By Graeme Burton
10 Jul 2014 View Comments
IBM unveils its latest nanophotonics chip

IBM is to invest $3bn over the next five years on two research and early-stage development programmes to design the chip technology required to support cloud computing and big data.

The research programmes will encompass so-called quantum computing, neurosynaptic computing, silicon photonics, graphene, low-power transistors and carbon nanotubes as the company looks towards microprocessors built on seven-nanometre process technology.

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"The question is not if we will introduce seven-nanometre technology into manufacturing, but rather how, when, and at what cost?" said John Kelly, senior vice president, IBM Research.

"IBM engineers and scientists, along with our partners, are... already working on the materials science and device engineering required to meet the demands of the emerging system requirements for cloud, big data, and cognitive systems. This new investment will ensure that we produce the necessary innovations to meet these challenges."

Virtually all electronic equipment today is built on complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technology. According to IBM, there is an urgent need for new materials and circuit architecture designs compatible with this engineering process as the technology industry nears physical scalability limits of the silicon transistor.

Potential alternatives include new materials such as carbon nanotubes, and non-traditional computational approaches such as neuromorphic computing, cognitive computing, machine learning techniques, and the science behind quantum computing.

Neurosynaptic computing, including a new programming language and applications, eschews the traditional von Neumann architecture to emulate the human brain. "IBM's long-term goal is to build a neurosynaptic system with ten billion neurons and a hundred trillion synapses, all while consuming only one kilowatt of power and occupying less than two litres of volume," claims the company.

IBM has also led research into CMOS integrated silicon photonics, which integrates functions for optical communications on a silicon chip.

"IBM team has recently designed and fabricated the world's first monolithic silicon photonics based transceiver with wavelength division multiplexing. Such transceivers will use light to transmit data between different components in a computing system at high data rates, low cost, and in an energetically efficient manner," continues the company.

But possibly the most promising new material to replace copper at the heart of microprocessor technology as it reaches its physical limits is graphene. A pure form of carbon in the form of a one-atom layer thick sheet, it is highly conductive of both heat and electricity, as well as strong and flexible.

"Electrons can move in graphene about ten times faster than in commonly used semiconductor materials such as silicon and silicon germanium. Its characteristics offer the possibility to build faster switching transistors than are possible with conventional semiconductors, particularly for applications in handheld wireless communications," according to IBM.

The company recently demonstrated the world's first graphene-based integrated-circuit receiver front-end for wireless communications. The circuit consisted of a two-stage amplifier and a down converter operating at 4.3 GHz.

IBM's research will be conducted at both its semiconductor research facilities - assuming that the company continues to maintain them - and with universities, through private-public partnerships such as the NanoElectornics Research Initiative, the Semiconductor Advanced Research Network (STARnet) and the Global Research Consortium.

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