Commoditizing Green

What Moore’s Law did for performance will now be turned toward energy and power efficiency.

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Over the past five decades, Moore’s Law has been a powerful guiding principle for shrinking process geometries and improving performance. But with performance now considered secondary to energy and power efficiency, the same forces that have worked to commoditize performance increases while slashing costs will be applied to saving battery life and drawing less energy from the wall.

This is an interesting shift, and it will drive sweeping changes that will affect all parts of the semiconductor supply chain, from design to manufacturing and everything in between. One of the biggest changes will be in the supply chain itself. Unlike performance, which can be localized, power is a system-level consideration. A processor may increase or decrease in clock frequency, and the materials and structures used to create it may change, but it doesn’t necessarily affect everything inside an SoC.

Power does. There is only one power budget for a system. Moreover, that power budget has to be managed from the architecture, to the IP that’s chosen or developed, all the way to the process and materials used to create it. It also requires much more collaboration at each step from design through manufacturing, with information flowing in two directions instead of just one.

This isn’t new to the IDM world, but it is unique for a disaggregated supply chain. Until the mid-1990s, information always flowed in two directions because companies had their own fabs. It wasn’t until the cost of digital processes began exploding that companies began regarding process data as proprietary. But those escalating costs also have caused a shakeout in the leading edge of the foundry business, which allows the survivors to be more comfortable with sharing that data.

It’s a good thing, too. Collaboration will be essential for adding making SoC designs more energy efficient. These new chips will require new structures, new packages, well-tested and characterized IP, better-written software, new materials and potentially new business models and strategies. But it also will require many of the basics that have made IC development so successful over the past 50 years—a determined focus by lots of smart people working together to solve some very difficult problems.

Fortunately, most of the pieces are in place to begin this shift. Now the question is what kinds of advances can be made, where the roadblocks will be, and how we will get around them. This is an industry that was supposed to come to a grinding halt at 1 micron. The next challenge is to deliver the same functionality of a desktop computer on a mobile device with no loss in performance, at a reasonable cost, using the same battery technology that currently doesn’t even last a day of continuous use. It will be done. The only question is when, with what new approaches, and by whom.