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
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.