TSMC, ARM aim 7nm at data centers

March 16, 2016 // By Rick Merritt
TSMC and ARM announced the next phase of their collaboration on leading-edge semiconductor process technology. Interestingly, they suggest data center and networking chips will be drivers of their work on the 7nm FinFET node.

To date, mobile application processors such as Apple’s A series, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon and Samsung’s Exynos have been among the first SoCs to use new process technologies. Tape outs of mobile chips using 64-bit ARM cores were among the early milestones for 16 and 10nm nodes.

Amid a slowdown in handset growth, the winds appear to be shifting. In a statement released March 15, the two announced “a multi-year agreement to collaborate on a 7nm FinFET process…The new agreement expands the companies’ long-standing partnership and advances leading-edge process technologies beyond mobile and into next-generation networks and data centers.”

Specifically, ARM said it is preparing a generation of “future ARM technology designed specifically for data centers and network infrastructure and optimized for TSMC 7nm FinFET,” according to a quote in the release from Pete Hutton, president of ARM’s product group.

To date, ARM’s leading edge cores have served a broad array of applications from high-end handset to server SoCs. Late last year, ARM alluded to work on cores for servers and networking and announced libraries specifically for high-performance computing.

ARM and TSMC will use the 7nm collaboration to go beyond past work on test chips to prove a node’s readiness. “To better enable our customers design and tape-out optimized SoCs for data centers and network infrastructure, we need to also address design challenges that our mutual customers may be facing,” so the duo will hammer out a “design solution [that] is a silicon proof point to demonstrate realistic data center workloads,” a spokesman said.

Last year , TSMC said it expects to start making 7nm chips in 2017. That’s about the time ARM’s initiative to enable server SoCs should start bearing real fruit, said Handel Jones, principal of consulting firm International Business Strategies (Los Gatos, Calif.).

“ARM is very active in trying to get into data centers and 7 nm will be a key technology node for many of these activities…High production