Mak­ing the chip that pow­ers the in­ter­net

The de­vel­op­ment of a mi­cro­pro­ces­sor is one of the riski­est, costli­est, and most tech­ni­cally com­plex feats in busi­ness

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Front Page - Lo­ca­tions U.S., In­dia, Tech­nol­ogy Semi­con­duc­tors Story Max Chafkin & Ian King Pho­to­graphs Justin Fantl

Be­fore en­ter­ing the clean­room in D1D, as In­tel calls its 17 mil­lion-cu­bic-foot mi­cro­pro­ces­sor fac­tory in Hills­boro, Ore­gon, it’s a good idea to care­fully wash your hands and face. You should prob­a­bly also empty your blad­der. There are no bath­rooms in the clean­room. Makeup, per­fume, and cos­met­ics are for­bid­den. Writ­ing in­stru­ments are al­lowed, as long as they’re spe­cial ster­ile pens; pa­per, which sheds mi­cro­scopic par­ti­cles, is ab­so­lutely banned. If you want to write on some­thing, you’ll have to use what is known in the in­dus­try as “high­per­for­mance doc­u­men­ta­tion ma­te­rial,” a pa­per­like prod­uct that doesn’t re­lease fibers. Af­ter you put on a hair­net, your next stop is the gown­ing sta­tion, in­side a pres­sur­ized room that sits be­tween the out­side world and the clean­room it­self. A hard breeze, sent by a clean­ing sys­tem that takes up the equiv­a­lent of four and a half foot­ball fields, hits you as you walk in, re­mov­ing stray mat­ter—dust, lint, dog hairs, bac­te­ria. You put on pre- gown gloves, then a white body­suit with a hood and sur­gi­cal-style mouth cover, fol­lowed by a sec­ond pair of gloves, a sec­ond pair of shoe cov­ers, and safety glasses. None of these mea­sures are for your safety; they pro­tect the chips from you.

The air in the clean­room is the purest you’ve ever breathed. It’s class 10 pu­rity, mean­ing that for ev­ery cu­bic foot of air there can be no more than 10 par­ti­cles larger than half a mi­cron, which is about the size of a small bac­te­ria. In an ex­cep­tion­ally clean hos­pi­tal OR, there can be as many as 10,000 bac­te­ri­a­size par­ti­cles with­out cre­at­ing any spe­cial risk of in­fec­tion. In the out­side world, there are about 3 mil­lion.

The clean­room is nearly silent ex­cept for the low hum of the “tools,” as In­tel calls them, which look like gi­ant copy ma­chines and cost as much as $50 mil­lion each. They sit on steel pedestals that are at­tached to the build­ing’s frame, so that no vi­bra­tions—from other tools, for in­stance, or from your foot­falls—will af­fect the chips. You step softly even so. Some of these tools are so pre­cise they can be con­trolled to within half a nanome­ter, the width of two sil­i­con atoms.

It’s sur­pris­ingly dark, too. For decades, In­tel’s clean­rooms have been lit like dark­rooms, bathed in a deep, low yel­low. “That’s an anachro­nism,” says Mark Bohr, a small, se­ri­ous man who has spent his en­tire 38-year ca­reer mak­ing chips, and who’s now In­tel’s top man­u­fac­tur­ing sci­en­tist. “No­body’s had the courage to change it.”

Chips are made by cre­at­ing tiny pat­terns on a pol­ished 12-inch sil­i­con disk, in part by us­ing a process called pho­tolithog­ra­phy and de­posit­ing su­perthin lay­ers of ma­te­ri­als on top. These wafers are kept in sealed, mi­crowave oven-size pods called “foups” that are car­ried around by ro­bots— hun­dreds of ro­bots, ac­tu­ally—run­ning on tracks over­head, tak­ing the wafers to var­i­ous tools. The air in­side a foup is class 1, mean­ing it prob­a­bly con­tains no par­ti­cles at all. Pe­ri­od­i­cally, the wafer is washed us­ing a form of water so pure it isn’t found in na­ture. It’s so pure it’s lethal. If you drank enough of it, it would pull es­sen­tial min­er­als out of your cells and kill you.

Over the next three months—three times the amount of time it takes Boe­ing to man­u­fac­ture a sin­gle Dream­liner— these wafers will be trans­formed into mi­cro­pro­ces­sors. They’ll make their way through more than 2,000 steps of lithog­ra­phy, etch­ing, ma­te­rial ap­pli­ca­tion, and more etch­ing. Each will then be chopped up into a hun­dred or so thumb­nail-size “dies,” each of which will be pack­aged in a ce­ramic en­clo­sure.

If ev­ery­thing func­tions prop­erly, none of the 100,000 or so peo­ple who work at In­tel will ever touch them. The end­point of this mech­a­nized mir­a­cle: the In­tel Xeon E5 v4, the com­pany’s lat­est server chip and the en­gine of the in­ter­net.

In­tel rarely talks about how it cre­ates a new chip. When Bloomberg Busi­ness­week vis­ited the Hills­boro fab in May, we were given the most ex­ten­sive tour of the fac­tory since Pres­i­dent Obama vis­ited in 2011. The ret­i­cence is un­der­stand­able, con­sid­er­ing that the de­vel­op­ment and man­u­fac­ture of a new mi­cro­pro­ces­sor is one of the big­gest, riski­est bets in busi­ness. Sim­ply build­ing a fab ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing a chip like the E5 costs at least $8.5 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to Gart­ner, and that doesn’t in­clude the costs of re­search and de­vel­op­ment ($2 bil­lion­plus) or of de­sign­ing the cir­cuit lay­out (more than $300 mil­lion). Even mod­est “ex­cur­sions”—in­tel’s eu­phemism for screw- ups— can add hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in ex­pense. The whole process can take five years or more. “If you need short- term grat­i­fi­ca­tion, don’t be a chip de­signer,” says Pat Gelsinger, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Vmware and a long­time In­tel ex­ec­u­tive who most re­cently served as the com­pany’s chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer. “There are very few things like it.”

A top- of- the- line E5 is the size of a postage stamp, re­tails for $ 4,115, and uses about 60 per­cent more en­ergy per year than a large Whirlpool re­frig­er­a­tor. You use them when­ever you search Google, hail an Uber, or let your kids stream Episode 3 of Un­break­able Kimmy Sch­midt in your car. These feats of com­puter sci­ence are of­ten at­trib­uted to the rise of the smart­phone, but the hard work is be­ing done on thou­sands of servers. And pretty much all of those servers run on In­tel chips.

In­tel, based in Santa Clara, Calif., cre­ated the first mi­cro­pro­ces­sor in 1971 and, un­der the lead­er­ship of Andy Grove, be­came a house­hold name in the 1990s, sell­ing the chips that ran most per­sonal com­put­ers. But PC sales have fallen over the past five years with the rise of smart­phones, and In­tel was slow to de­velop lower-power chips suited for those de­vices. The com­pany re­cently an­nounced lay­offs of 11 per­cent of its work­force, as CEO Brian Krzanich puts it, to “rein­vent our­selves.”

In­tel is still the world’s largest chip­maker, and it sells 99 per­cent of the chips that go into servers, ac­cord­ing to re­search firm IDC. Last year its data cen­ter group had rev­enue of about $16 bil­lion, nearly half of which was profit. This dom­i­nance is the re­sult of com­peti­tors’ fail­ings and In­tel’s will­ing­ness to spend what­ever it must to en­sure large, pre­dictable im­prove­ments to its prod­ucts, ev­ery sin­gle year. “Our cus­tomers ex­pect that they will get a 20 per­cent in­crease in per­for­mance at the same price that they paid last year,” says Diane Bryant, an In­tel ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent and gen­eral man­ager of the com­pany’s data cen­ter busi­ness. “That’s our mantra.”

In PCS and phones, this strat­egy has its lim­its: Con­sumers sim­ply don’t care that much about speed and ef­fi­ciency be­yond a cer­tain point. But in servers, where data cen­ters run by such com­pa­nies as Ama­zon.com and Mi­crosoft com­pete for the right to han­dle data for the Net­flixes and Ubers of the world, per­for­mance is para­mount. The elec­tric­ity needed to run and cool servers is by far the big­gest ex­pense at the av­er­age server farm. If In­tel can de­liver more com­put­ing power for the same amount of elec­tric­ity, data cen­ter own­ers will up­grade again and again.

There’s a lot rid­ing on that “if.” Each year, In­tel’s ex­ec­u­tives es­sen­tially bet the com­pany on the no­tion that they can keep push­ing the lim­its of cir­cuits, elec­tron­ics, and sil­i­con atoms, spend­ing bil­lions long be­fore they turn a profit. Even­tu­ally chips will go the way of in­can­des­cent light­bulbs, pas­sen­ger jets, and pretty much ev­ery other in­ven­tion as it ages; the pace of im­prove­ment will slow dra­mat­i­cally. “There will be a point where sil­i­con tech­nol­ogy gets like that, but it’s not in the next cou­ple of decades,” Krzanich says con­fi­dently. “Our job is to push that point to the very last minute.”

Mi­cro­pro­ces­sors are ev­ery­where. They’re in your TV, car, Wi-fi router, and, if they’re new enough, your re­frig­er­a­tor and ther­mo­stat. In­ter­net- con­nected light­bulbs and some run­ning shoes have chips. Even if you don’t think of them that way, these de­vices are in a sense com­put­ers, which means they’re made of tran­sis­tors.

An un­pro­cessed sil­i­con wafer costs about $300. It’ll be worth more than $300,000 when the fab is fin­ished. A Google self-driv­ing car might have three server chips on board; a sin­gle Google search might use thou­sands of them. Un­der late CEO Andy Grove, In­tel cre­ated the “copy ex­actly” phi­los­o­phy, which means all fabs are iden­ti­cal. A hu­man red blood cell is 7,000 nanome­ters across. A virus is 100nm. In­tel’s fabs work on a 14nm scale. Ac­cord­ing to Gart­ner, a chip de­sign needs to gen­er­ate $3 bil­lion over its first two years to be eco­nom­i­cally vi­able.It takes five years to make a new server chip—and just three years for that chip to be­come ob­so­lete.

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