IBM Pledges £1.7bn Chip Research Investment

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IBM to spend $3bn on computer chip research to reinvigorate its slumping hardware unit

IBM aims to develop the necessary hardware to meet the demanding requirements of big data and cloud computing in the years ahead.

To this end, Big Blue announced a $3bn (£1.7bn) investment in chip research over the next five years, aimed at discovering semiconductor breakthroughs and cramming ever more components on a chip.

Post Silicon

For a while now, IBM’s bottom line has been hurt by large declines in hardware revenues. In its last quarter for example, the company witnessed a painful 23 percent decline in hardware revenues during its first quarter.

But now IBM is seeking to return to its hardware roots, and reassure its customers with two new research programs.

The first initiative looks to squeeze the last drop of potential out of the traditional silicon approach, to ensure the continuation of Moore’s Law. This is because of a growing realisation that computing power is a finite resource, and currently the computational capability at our disposal today is increasingly limited by power requirements and the constraints on the ability to dissipate heat.

ibmmicrochip“The first research program is aimed at so-called “7 nanometer and beyond” silicon technology that will address serious physical challenges that are threatening current semiconductor scaling techniques and will impede the ability to manufacture such chips,” said IBM.

Meanwhile the second initiative will research new materials to be used instead of traditional silicon. This could include carbon nanotubes, which offer better stability than silicon and are also heat resistant. Other possible materials are graphene and silicon photonics.

“The second is focused on developing alternative technologies for post-silicon era chips using entirely different approaches, which IBM scientists and other experts say are required because of the physical limitations of silicon based semiconductors.

Big Blue said it would form teams of IBM Research scientists and engineers from Albany and Yorktown, New York; Almaden, California; and Europe.

Hardware Retreat?

“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, IBM Research. “IBM engineers and scientists, along with our partners, are well suited for this challenge and 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.”

“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, The Envisioneering Group. “IBM is one of a very few companies who has repeatedly demonstrated this level of science and engineering expertise.”

Despite the large chip investment pledge, Big Blue is said to be looking to offload its semiconductor business, although there is no official confirmation of this. Globalfoundries is said to be talks about IBM about acquiring the semiconductor division.

IBM is also in the process of selling its low-end x86 server business to Lenovo for $2.3 billion (£1.3bn), having already sold Lenovo its PC unit back in 2005.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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