Two bits per transistor: high-density ROM in Intel’s 8087 floating point chip

The 8087 chip provided fast floating point arithmetic for the original IBM PC and became part of the x86 architecture used today. One unusual feature of the 8087 is it contained a multi-level ROM (Read-Only Memory) that stored two bits per transistor, twice as dense as a normal ROM. Instead of storing binary data, each cell in the 8087’s ROM stored one of four different values, which were then decoded into two bits. Because the 8087 required a large ROM for microcode1 and the chip was pushing the limits of how many transistors could fit on a chip, Intel used this special technique to make the ROM fit. In this article, I explain how Intel implemented this multi-level ROM.

Two bits per transistor high-density ROM in Intel’s 8087 floating point chip

Intel introduced the 8087 chip in 1980 to improve floating-point performance on the 8086 and 8088 processors. Since early microprocessors operated only on integers, arithmetic with floating point numbers was slow and transcendental operations such as trig or logarithms were even worse. Adding the 8087 co-processor chip to a system made floating point operations up to 100 times faster. The 8087’s architecture became part of later Intel processors, and the 8087’s instructions (although now obsolete) are still a part of today’s x86 desktop computers.

I opened up an 8087 chip and took die photos with a microscope yielding the composite photo below. The labels show the main functional blocks, based on my reverse engineering. (Click here for a larger image.) The die of the 8087 is complex, with 40,000 transistors.2 Internally, the 8087 uses 80-bit floating point numbers with a 64-bit fraction (also called significand or mantissa), a 15-bit exponent and a sign bit. (For a base-10 analogy, in the number 6.02×1023, 6.02 is the fraction and 23 is the exponent.) At the bottom of the die, “fraction processing” indicates the circuitry for the fraction: from left to right, this includes storage of constants, a 64-bit shifter, the 64-bit adder/subtracter, and the register stack. Above this is the circuitry to process the exponent.

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