Looking back a decade may give some hint about just how much things will change over the next 10 years.
It was fun to see all of the new products that were rolled out this year at CES. It got me thinking about how much technology has advanced in the past 10 years. In 2006, the iPhone was still a year away from being introduced and we hadn’t discovered tablets yet. The Internet wasn’t mobile and the cloud was still something in the sky. Never mind Fitbits, smart watches, augmented reality or autonomous cars. They weren’t even in our vocabulary. The advances in the technology around us over the past 10 years have been nothing less than astounding.
As amazing as the advances have been, imagine what our world will be like 10 years from now in 2026. Will cars fly? Probably not, but most new cars will be able to drive themselves. Will we have Star Trek holodecks in our homes? No, but augmented reality will be widely used in entertainment, mobile devices and industry. Will IoT have lived up to the hype? Yes, and in ways that we haven’t even dreamed of yet. Our connection and ease of access to information and one another, and our ability to interact with the digital world, will increase exponentially. If you like technology, the advances will be fabulous.
Of course, there are a number of things that will enable this future technology, but the next generations of embedded microprocessors will be key. They will have to deliver levels of performance that were unthinkable just a few years ago. For years it has been possible to just crank up the clock speed to get more performance. But realistically, we have reached the limit of 2 to 3 GHz. New designs are being developed with multiple processors to achieve the required performance. We can’t just keep throwing processors at the problem either because using more processors can increase power consumption, which proves problematic for chip designers who have to increase the performance of their products but must maintain the same or lower power budgets.
While there are many schemes being employed to deal with power, fundamentally next-generation processors need to be designed to maximize performance while minimizing power consumption, memory requirements and system resources. The days of being able to just throw transistors at the problem to get higher performance are over. Performance efficiency is a key design parameter for new processors, and designers should be focusing on things like energy per cycle and mW per mm2 in addition to performance.
Many of the new generation of processors implement superscalar or multithreading schemes to achieve higher performance. These architectures can deliver on total performance, but they lack performance efficiency (DMIPS/mW, DMIPS/mm2). What designers need is a processor that delivers on total performance, can be clocked at multi-GHz speeds and uses power very sparingly. It’s a difficult task to design an efficient processor that offers enough performance for today’s applications plus headroom for future design growth.
To accomplish this, next-generation processors need to do more with less. An example such processors can be found in Synopsys’ ARC HS processor family. Designed for embedded applications with performance efficiency as a primary design metric, the family can be clocked at more than 2 GHz (when implemented in 28nm process technology) and deliver more than 4200 DMIPS per core, but use less than 80 mW of power. The cores are implemented with a specialized 10-stage scalar pipeline that delivers more performance than the popular high-performance processors from a couple of years ago. This is more than twice the performance of others in this class of lower power processors, and in some cases the ARC HS processors offer more performance at less than half the power consumption of others.
To address the needs of today’s most innovative products, the HS processors are available in dual-core and quad-core versions that support very high performance with symmetric or distributed processing. To enable additional design optimization, the processors are configurable so that each instance on an SoC can be tailored to the specific requirements for that instance in terms of performance, power and area. Designers can also add their own hardware accelerators to the processor through the ARC Processor Extension (APEX) interface to further increase performance and lower power consumption, or to add special differentiating features to their design.
Today we can only imagine what technology will bring 10 years from now. Currently, the cellphone in your pocket has 15 to 20 processors, the laptop you are reading this on has about the same number, and your car has 50 to 100. The technology of 2026 will require orders of magnitude more processing capability, and I suspect that multiple processors will be in almost everything that we touch or interact with. I’m sure that the embedded processors of 2026 will offer unbelievable performance, but do so very efficiently. To do this will force us to rethink processor design and to develop innovative ways of delivering the required performance with ever-shrinking power budgets. Hang on to your hat. The advances in the technology around us over the next 10 years will be nothing less than astounding.