For our audience that regularly keeps track of Intel’s product portfolio, it would be hard to miss that the naming strategy of Intel’s process node technologies is a bit of a mess. To some, those words are themselves an understatement, as Intel has shifted its naming strategy 2-3 times since the launch of Intel’s first 10nm products. Not only that, even Intel’s various departments internally have a hard time keeping track of ‘what is this manufacturing process being called today’ when the press like AnandTech ask for details on the latest upcoming products.

Knowing this, and knowing what issues Intel has been having, I wanted to demystify Intel’s manufacturing process naming scheme such that users and engineers alike, even if they are inside Intel, can understand what is what but also importantly why. The why is the crucial factor.

If you're looking for a handy decoder ring for Intel's 10nm Products, it's here in page 3.

Why Do We Have Multiple Versions of a Process?

With Intel’s 14nm, we were invited to 14nm, 14+, 14++, 14+++, and if you believe Intel’s own slides, there were variants that went beyond this ++++ naming scheme. Each one of those additional + points on the end of the name signified a change in the process technology – usually to assist for increasing performance or efficiency.

Each one of these + points is an update to the BKM, or Best Known Methods.

While an engineer can draw an electrical layouts for a part of a processor, such as an addition circuit, actually applying that design to a silicon floorplan for manufacturing is a different skill altogether. Transistor libraries are designed to take advantage of a given process, and when a floorplan is optimized for a process, it can then be pasted and repeated as necessary – on top of this, simulation on thermals, power, and current density are applied to ensure that there are no hotspots or that critical paths inside the design have as few bottlenecks as possible.

When an update to the BKM occurs, two things can happen. Normally we see the update on the level of the transistor library that is changed – if the distance between two fins on a transistor increases for example, the transistor library and the macros may be made bigger, and then the floorplan might be redesigned to take account for this. As for any process node design, there are 100 different controls, and improving one might make three other controls worse, so it is a fine balancing act. Not only this, but the BKM has to be validated at the manufacturing level. The BKM update could apply to the metal stack as well, which in of itself can adjust the performance.

Lots of dials at each stage

In the long long past, BKM updates were never advertised externally. If Intel or TSMC or another foundry discovered a way to improve the performance, or decrease the voltage, or improve the yield, the update was silently rolled into the design and nothing much was made of it. Sometimes processors would be listed as ‘1.0 volts to 1.35 volts’, and it would just be a roll of the dice if a user obtained one of the lower voltage models.

However, as time between different process node updates has elongated, these BKM updates have started to be identified and effectively monetized by the semiconductor companies. An update to a process that improves the voltage by 50 millivolts and increases frequency by 200 MHz immediately becomes a productizable event, and products built on these updates can be offered for more money over the usual. Or, depending on the rate of updates, the whole next generation of products could be built on the update.

So we never saw BKM updates officially announced at Intel’s 45nm, 32nm, or 22nm process nodes. These updates were fast enough that the productization of any update didn’t warrant a full round of marketing. With 14nm, that changed.

Intel had discussed its roadmap beyond 14nm since its 2010 Investor Meeting. It predicted that the company would be on 14nm by 2013, 10nm by 2015, and 7nm by 2017. As we now know, 14nm was two years late, and 10nm was 2-4 years late. Because of the introduction of 10nm being delayed, Intel decided to productize its 14nm BKM updates, and signified those with + points.

Intel’s current official line is that there have been four updates to 14nm, creating five ‘generations’.

More Plus Means More Meme

Because of all the + points, Intel’s marketing sometimes getting it wrong, and perhaps a little bit of ‘++’ in most programming languages meaning ‘+1’, the whole concept of adding + to the process node has become a meme – a meme at Intel’s expense, purely on the basis of its failure to deliver 10nm before the 14++++ naming scheme got out of hand.

10nm Changes Direction, Twice
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  • yeeeeman - Friday, September 25, 2020 - link

    Mister swan needs to go somewhere else because he is pathetic. He is consuming engineers time with stupid things.
  • shabby - Friday, September 25, 2020 - link

    Let him run intel to the ground.
  • xenol - Friday, September 25, 2020 - link

    And then let AMD take over the x86 market? That's even worse.
  • Drkrieger01 - Friday, September 25, 2020 - link

    The tech market right now is an example of why we want competition between silicon designers/manufacturers. Intel is trying to pull up their socks to catch back up to AMD, and it's creating better product for the end users, and at better prices. I think we all forgot the glory days of when Intel and AMD were in good competition (Athlon 64 XII/Phenom days anyone?), and price to performance was very good. But that was over 10 years ago now...
  • Lord of the Bored - Saturday, September 26, 2020 - link

    Heck yeah. We remember the great Athlon Wars, and mourn for those lost along the way.

    Pour one out for poor Cyrix, everybody.
  • velanapontinha - Saturday, September 26, 2020 - link

    I feel ya
  • fteoath64 - Monday, October 19, 2020 - link

    Don"t forget Centuar as well as VIA!.
  • AMDSuperFan - Friday, September 25, 2020 - link

    AMD will have 200 cores soon. Imagine being able to do 200 things at once on your home computer. So what if Intel does 50 things faster, I will be able to do 200 things.
  • FunBunny2 - Friday, September 25, 2020 - link

    "I will be able to do 200 things."

    unless you design nucular bombs or hurricane predictions or auto-generate paperback detective tales... why?
  • Hifihedgehog - Friday, September 25, 2020 - link

    Guess you didn't get the memo... Nuclear Bomb Simulator and Hurricane Simulator are coming to Steam in 2021!

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