Nvidia’s Pascal GPU family has been tremendously successful, but the company is already looking ahead to a new architecture, codenamed Volta. Details on the chip are scarce, though Nvidia has previously given guidance that Volta would be its first consumer HBM2 product and would feature a stacked memory architecture. Now, rumors are flying that the chip will actually be built on TSMC’s “new” 12nm node.
The reason we’ve put the word in quotes is because 12nm isn’t really a new node at all. Here’s how TSMC’s CC Wei described it in TSMC’s last quarterly conference call.
[O]ur strategy is continuously to improve every node in the performance, such as 28 nanometer. And are continuing to improve the 16 nanometers technology. And we have some very good progress, and you might call it the 12 nanometer because we’re improve in the density, classical density, performance and power consumption. Yes, we have that.
TSMC appears to be performing the same kind of optimization and improvement to existing nodes that every foundry performs over time. It’s just that this time, they’re calling it something a little different.
This photo shows TSMC’s various types of 28nm technology and their respective characteristics at a very high level. The deeper you drill into the characteristics of each sub-type, the larger the differences become. A device built on TSMC’s 28LP process would have very different characteristics than a device built on 28HP, even though both are based on 28nm.
Over the last 20 years, it’s become increasingly difficult to cleanly define a node. In the old days, node size and gate length were synonymous. As time has passed, the metrics for a new node have grown more complex. Samsung, TSMC, and Intel all tend to brand their products as belonging to the same node (save for TSMC going with 16nm as opposed to 14nm), but that doesn’t mean they are identical, as the chart below demonstrates: