Data centres doubling is next driver of chip demand, Hynix says

The Covid-19 pandemic has spotlighted the importance of semiconductors like never before.
The Covid-19 pandemic has spotlighted the importance of semiconductors like never before.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - The next big surge in demand for semiconductors will be driven by a doubling in the data centres that underpin virtually all online services over the next four years, according to the world's second-largest memory chipmaker.

In a keynote address at an industry forum on Sunday (March 21), SK Hynix chief executive officer Lee Seok-hee said he expects exponential growth in data and bandwidth consumption spurred by new technologies like 5G networking, artificial intelligence and self-driving cars. So-called hyperscale data centres are set to double in number by 2025 to 1,060, according to his presentation, providing the infrastructure and distribution systems for everything from social media and online gaming to smart agriculture and connected factories.

The Covid-19 pandemic has spotlighted the importance of semiconductors like never before, first triggering a rush of demand for stay-at-home tech before later boosting car sales as various markets rebounded faster than expected. Mr Lee is betting that his company, which is second only to Samsung Electronics in supplying Dram memory and is growing its Nand business with the US$9 billion (S$12.1 billion) acquisition of Intel's storage unit, stands to benefit no matter what the future holds.

"The total amount of both structured and unstructured data is expected to increase exponentially," said Mr Lee, who spent a decade as a principal engineer at Intel between stints at Icheon, South Korea-based Hynix. "If you look at the capacity requirement of Dram and Nand Flash for each data centre, the numbers are daunting."

Internet giants from Amazon.com to Microsoft and Alphabet's Google have been investing for years to grab a lead in the increasingly crucial data centre race. All three are now custom-designing their own chips in the pursuit of greater efficiency. That's bad news for Mr Lee's former employer, but the chips that will be most abundant across those data farms will be ones storing data - and providing memory is now a three-way contest between Hynix, Samsung and American rival Micron Technology.

Hynix plans to spend 4.75 trillion won (S$5.64 billion) on extreme ultraviolet lithography scanners from Dutch supplier ASML Holdings over five years. EUV technology is key to helping the company unlock more advanced chip fabrication methods. Mr Lee said Hynix aims to improve Dram reliability by a factor of 20, a vital consideration for applications like autonomous cars, and increase the density of its stacked storage chips to 600 layers from the current maximum of 176.