The Future is Now

Evolving Computing Landscape

When I worked for a big corporate executive in charge of mainframe business in the early 2000s, we spent a lot of time visiting Fortune100 CIOs in New York City. And while mainframes still are strategically critical today, I look back and realize how rapidly the computing landscape has shifted, and how the future is now.

Distributed systems took over many computing workloads over the last few decades. Then the mobile revolution put computing into billions of devices in our pockets. Today, cloud computing and accelerated computing bring compute power to billions of people and trillions of intelligent machines. Ultimately, the boundary between the physical and virtual world will likely blur over the next decade!

And the underpinning of all of this? Semiconductor technology.

Why Performance?

On a late night in a university lab, one of my classmates asked me a question: “If the computer I have now is good enough for all my needs, why do we need to push for device scaling and new chips?” We clearly lacked imagination on how many new applications could be enabled as computing power skyrocketed over the coming years.

Since the emergence of the Internet and the smart phone, there’s been an explosion of data. In 2020, over 60 zettabytes (ZB) were created or replicated, according to IDC (IDC Global DataSphere and StorageSphere Forecasts, 2021). An insatiable amount of high-performance computing is required to filter and process all of it.

High performance technology, driven by leading edge process nodes, is the engine for the next level of innovation. Take machine learning as an example. It isn’t new. The fundamental concept actually dates back to the 1940s. Largely thanks to significant leaps in computer performance, previously unimaginable progress has been made in recent years. Computing power, measured by floating-point operations per second, or FLOPS, has improved by five orders of magnitude in the last 20 years[1]! And that pace will continue to accelerate.

N4X Technology Tailored for Performance

For years, TSMC has steadily grown our emphasis on performance, providing the semiconductor technology to help power our HPC customers’ innovation. We’ve put all compute-intensive applications - server CPUs, client CPUs, GPUs, AI, and network processors - on our High-Performance Computing Platform.

HPC products have the following unique attributes:

  • Higher performance and usually higher frequencies
  • Power consumption on the order of 100watts – approaching 1000watts in extreme cases
  • Heavier utilization and a higher percentage of dynamic power in the power envelope
  • More SRAMs (>1Gb) on SoC
  • Higher memory bandwidth
  • Higher speed IO connectivity
  • Larger die sizes with challenges to manufacturability and yield

Today, we introduced our N4X process technology, tailored for these extreme demands of high-performance computing. N4X will be the first of TSMC’s HPC-focused brand, with the “X” designation representing ultimate performance and maximum clock frequencies. Risk production for N4X is expected by the first half of 2023.

What sets N4X apart is the optimization of the FinFET transistor and back-end-of-line process for overdrive conditions. Here is an overview of what N4X offers:

  • Up to 15% performance boost over N5 (at supply voltage of 1.2V) – transistor performance as a function of voltage is optimized, with a slight tradeoff in leakage current
  • Higher overdrive voltages beyond 1.2V to unlock additional performance
  • Lower resistance and parasitic capacitance of targeted metal layers - back-end-of-line metal layer optimization greatly affects HPC products, due to larger die sizes, higher clock frequencies, and higher operating voltages
  • Super-high-density metal-insulator-metal capacitor for most effective and reliable power delivery - Depending on product design, this performance element can minimize supply voltage droop under high current loading and increase product performance by 2~3%.

Power of the Platform

With increasing computing demand, we are seeing HPC chip designs approaching the maximum reticle size even with most leading-edge semiconductor process nodes. Fortunately, TSMC not only offers performance-optimized silicon with N4X technology, but we also provide a comprehensive HPC platform.

TSMC Open Innovation Platform® (OIP), a comprehensive design enablement platform, offers foundational IPs as well as a wide variety of high-performance IPs with our ecosystem partners.

Using TSMC’s 3DFabric™, our customers can expand the number of leading-edge compute chips for maximum compute power. Or, chips can be partitioned into multiple chiplets with each adopting the optimum technology of choice – logic optimized, IO and analog optimized, or memory optimized. This adds additional dimensions to the overall system performance optimization. Furthermore, System on Integrated Chips (TSMC-SoIC®) provides our customers capability to achieve monolithic-like interconnect density, when compared to micro-bump based designs.

Within the same 3DFabric™ package, specialty chiplets can be integrated along with leading edge high performance chips. For example, additional deep trench capacitors, or high-speed memories, and even optical IO chiplets can be integrated at close proximity with high routing density. To effectively address memory bandwidth, power delivery, or high-speed IO, the possibility of innovation for 10X[2] like performance improvement is endless.

This is the power of the TSMC HPC platform!

Looking into the Future

Computing power has transformed society, impacted every industry, and touched every part of our lives. We are witnessing something truly remarkable and unprecedented in this golden era of high-performance compute. N4X is only the first of TSMC’s extreme performance enhancements, as we are ready to support our customers’ innovations for many generations to come.

Our HPC platform is built on TSMC’s long-term research and development in advanced technology, and our close engagements with many HPC customers in recent years. We will continue to strengthen our platform offerings that include process and advanced packaging technologies, state-of-the-art manufacturing, and design enablement solutions, all targeted to helping our customers capture the growing HPC opportunities. This is not just a promise for the future. With the introduction of the N4X extreme performance process technology, the future is, indeed, now.

  1. and
  2. Mark Liu, “Unleashing the Future of Innovation”, ISSCC 2021 plenary talk. Available here.