A Cloud-Connected World

No matter what device you’re using, the cloud will play an increasingly important role in all electronics—and affecting SoC designs for years to come.


By Frank Ferro
If you’re paying attention and/or using a smart phone every day (and perhaps it’s safer to assume the latter) the ‘cloud’ is no longer a buzzword. The cloud has become grounded in our daily reality. How’s that for a paradox and a visual?

But at a minimum, it has become more like a punch line in every consumer’s day—without even thinking about it. Projections show that 15 billion devices and 3 billion people will be connected to the Internet by 2015. We all use the cloud daily for a large number of tasks, both personal and professional. Today, accessing information on the Internet is like breathing for most of us. Although I would likely never be accused of being a social media power user, I do have multiple email accounts in the cloud, use online storage, shop in the cloud, and perform a number of business functions that now reside in the cloud. There’s no ambiguity in that—the cloud is here, happening, and the silver lining is making its presence known to us all, ready or not.

Now as a mobile professional, I don’t want to have an Internet connection every time I need to read email. What would I do on those 10-hour flights? Security is also an issue because I am not entirely comfortable keeping valuable information in the cloud (although in reality, of course, I have plenty of information there). And like anything big, bold and not entirely understood, we are naturally skeptical. Storing music is safe, but my family photos, or backing up my entire hard drive…Hmmm. There is no question that this is the most convenient place to store information and having back-up copies in the cloud provides additional security benefits such as protection from disk crashes and physical calamities.

But no one can dispute that the cloud is growing and taking on a new level of significance as it seamlessly transitions from servers to mobile devices. Data center traffic is estimated to grow by 33% through 2015, with each of us generating 4GB of traffic per day. The cloud also has to deal with all those connected devices that require private clouds, public clouds, and a hybrid of both. These connected devices also offer new challenges for IT managers trying to control and secure an enterprise environment. All of this has clear implications for the number of servers and storage needed in the cloud, and in turn, is a major driver and an opportunity for semiconductor growth.

The ‘server on a chip’ is seen as an important growth market by semiconductor and IP vendors, which traditionally have focused on consumer devices. These ‘cloud-enabled’ SoCs are driving the leading edge of performance with multiple CPUs running at well over 1 GHz, with a high-speed switch fabric and a large number of high-speed peripherals.

The cloud/device co-efficient. The cloud also has been driving the features and functions for our SoCs in the popular gadgets we carry around today. Think about how useful (or is it useless) your tablet is without an Internet connection to the cloud. Sure, you can watch movies and play games, but those specialized portable devices have existed for years and never had the ubiquitous success that tablets have seen across all age groups—personally and professionally. And then think about how ‘smart’ your smart phone would really be without cloud content. A recent Nielsen survey of the top consumer devices showed that all of these products had connections to the Internet, with most having the ability to run downloadable user applications. And finally, consider the “Internet of Things,” a world where everything is uber-connected!

So the cloud is a true force behind the success of today’s connected devices and is driving the vast majority of their feature sets, and in turn, the underlying SoC. Much of the SoC architecture complexity is heavily driven by the need for connectivity and having the ability to accommodate downloadable user content. The graphics and video subsystems, for example, are increasing in performance to display this content faster and clearer. The communications subsystems are increasing in complexity since they have to connect to everything, to the point of making your mobile device a mini access point to the cloud—and who knows, maybe even becoming a baby or micro-cloud itself someday.

The co-existence of chips + cloud. The SoCs in these connected devices are now comprised of many computational subsystems (15 to 20 and growing). The computational rate of these subsystems are now outpacing Moore’s law; hence the need for multiple graphics and CPU cores to run in parallel, because we are not getting enough speed and density increases with each new process node to keep pace with all the content and applications. Looking inside any one of these subsystems and you will find multiple processing cores, memory, networks to connect the cores, coherent memory within the subsystem and interfaces to the main chip. To connect all these subsystems requires a higher-level network that may also include a coherency network layer on top to keep the memory shared across subsystems coherent.

Given all this, the SoC architecture is now comprised of networks-of-networks (aka the Internet), which has to run any number of user applications that may not be understood or identified at the time the SoC is designed. So the SoC continues to transform, from having simple buses to on-chip networks, to now many layers of networks (networks-of-networks). And with the amorphous nature of the cloud, it brings even more possibility and progress…without boundaries.

The cloud continues to scale before our eyes, both big and small, so fortunately for all of us, we can’t help but think about its infinite reach and what lies ahead for cloud-connected devices. And when we ponder today’s billions and tomorrow’s tens of billions of cloud-connected mobile devices, business requirements will naturally course-correct and change will be in the air…(and certainly in the cloud!) From the SoC’s vantage point, it looks as if it’s becoming strongly anchored in the cloud and not getting out anytime soon.

—Frank Ferro is director of marketing at Sonics.