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Intel '3-D' chip intrigues data center pros

New Tri-Gate transistors promised to show up in 22-nm "Ivy Bridge" chips late this year.

Data center professionals are agog about Intel’s latest chip breakthrough: its new Tri-Gate transistors claim faster flow of more electrons and power savings.

Intel last week demonstrated Tri-Gate technology running in laptop, desktop and server machines. The technology will start appearing in commercially produced “Ivy Gate” chips by the end of 2011, Intel said.

Pete Sclafani, CIO and co-founder of 6connect, a San Francisco-area data center consultancy, loves the notion of a more powerful yet more energy-efficient chip.

“You know me -- if I can get more compute power in the same or smaller footprint with a smaller heat signature, I’m all for it,” he said. He expects the chip to start impacting data center buying cycles next year.

Rand Morimoto, CEO of Convergent Computing, an IT consultancy in Oakland, Calif., is also bullish.

“Intel is trying to beat the speed of electricity/light -- something that many chips have reached their endpoint on from a 2-D flat-surface perspective. This whole 3-D thing provides another ‘dimension’ to make electricity flow up and down in addition to right/left on the flat surface. Very ingenious,” Morimoto said via email.

Tri-Gate/Ivy Bridge could “breathe new life in the stuff we do once these new technologies become available in actual operating products,” Morimoto added.

Cost-conscious data centers are always on the prowl for energy-saving technologies, and servers using these chips could help cut their utility bills, IT pros said.

Tri-Gate a long time coming
Intel actually announced the Tri-Gate concept in 2002, but it’s taken this long to bring it to manufacturing. 

In 2-D chips, the electrons flow along the flat, planar surface of the silicon wafer with the flow being turned off and on (zeros and ones) by one “gate.” Tri-Gate transistors incorporate fins that stick up from the wafer surface. Electrons can flow along the two sides and atop the fins, and those flows are controlled by three gates. That means more electrons flow. Because the electrons flow along these fins and not on the silicon surface, there is less energy leakage so lower voltages can be used. Intel claims that the 22 nm Tri-Gate transistors perform 37% better at low voltages compared to Intel’s 32 nm planar transistors.

Of course, the proof will be in the pudding, but Bill Kleyman, director of technology at World Wide Fittings in Niles, Ill., is jazzed about the Tri-Gate prospect. However, he and other observers expect the chip will make itself felt more in mobile technologies at first.

“This is really cool to see how Intel structures transistors in their hardware. It’s unbelievable technology and it may have a bigger effect on mobile computing versus servers. I think you’ll really see this take off in phones and laptops,” he said.

That is not to say he doesn’t think it will impact the server room, however. He is already able to use his HTC EVO smart phone and Citrix to RDP into his servers as long as he has an Internet connection.

“Cell phones with Windows 7 Mobile will be your micro-PC in the future,” he said.

Those words are music to Intel’s ears. The chip giant remains woefully outclassed in the smartphone chip arena where ARM processors dominate.

Last month, Intel announced a new Atom Z670 processor, code-named “Oak Trail,” for tablet devices. It expected some of those units to hit the shelves this month with some smartphones using the chip to debut later this year.

Still, the ARM camp seems to be taking Intel’s news in stride.

The flip side of big chip breakthroughs is that they result from complexity and that can yield problems.

"One of the standard rules in processor manufacturing is this: As manufacturing complexity increases, so does the defect level," said Kleyman. 

In semiconductor manufacturing,  chip makers often avoid releasing new processor designs on top of a new process, but that was not the case here. 

"The new Ivy Bridge line was created to be a better version of the Sandy Bridge chip. In a manufacturing environment, a processor wafer can hold several hundred microprocessor dies. These are then packed into a single chip. Since the manufacturing complexity has increased for this chip, there may be more of a chance of failure. Still, Intel’s thorough testing as well as product beta releases should help calm any nervous potential buyers," he added.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Barbara Darrow, Senior News Director at, or follow us on twitter.

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