IoT Brings Power Awareness Opportunities

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By Ann Steffora Mutschler
Limited only by imagination, the “Internet of Things” (IoT) is breathing new life into many segments of the semiconductor industry that are losing hopes for growth in the SoC market. In virtually any vertical market space, from automotive to consumer, from industrial to networking, one can imagine the potential for what IoT concepts could realize including higher efficiency in many aspects of life.

The IoT includes a lot of different technologies, but most of those technologies involve older processes. That relieves some of the pressure to push everything to 22nm and 28nm and even beyond.

“Every time you drop to a new geometry you can have 2X to 4X the number of transistors,” observed Shawn McCloud, vice president of marketing at Calypto. “But if you don’t do something about your power you’re going to have 2 to 4 times the amount of power at the same footprint and all of a sudden your chip burns up in thermal failures and power integrity failures.”

Most of the things on the IoT will not need gigahertz frequencies and super massive computation, so they can stay on 0.13micron, 0.18micron, even 65nm for a long time, according to Qi Wang, technical marketing director at Cadence. “So in that sense, if the whole industry comes up with an ecosystem that leverages the existing capacity at almost zero cost to produce the IoT chips, it could be cost-effective.”

Sensors are a key part of the infrastructure of the IoT. “It’s going to be where everything is going to be networked, and most things are going to be machine-to-machine and are going to need the sensors to take measurements of their environments, make adjustments or communicate or do things without humans actually having to push any buttons or even be there in most cases,” according to Rich Collins, marketing manager for IP Subsystems at Synopsys.

That, combined with the fact that by 2017, 80% of the IP in an SoC will be reused, according to Semico Research, this means a higher level of integration (i.e., subsystems) will be required compared to discrete IP blocks. As such, Synopsys is out in front here with it’s recently announced its ultra low power IP subsystem for sensors. http://news.synopsys.com/index.php?s=43&item=1141

Wang stressed that it’s hard to predict exactly what applications will be developed, “but everybody would agree that there will be a lot of innovations to come. The challenge is how to converge those ideas into moneymaking products. That part I don’t think anybody knows the answer to, but there could be two trends. One trend is that EDA companies and the whole ecosystem could make chip design very easy so that it drives new design starts. Just imagine people if can buy a bunch of tools and build a house by themselves. It’s just like that idea. Another possibility is that you don’t have to build your own chip by yourself. You just use off-the-shelf components.”

Out of the quest to capture the IoT market opportunity, new design methodologies could emerge, he suggested. “Right now, for example, a large number of the IoT designs require low power and low energy consumption. A big part of managing power is the power management IP. Many vendors offer power management IC product lines, which are discrete components that you buy off the shelf, where in the future it could be embedded. That’s going to change the whole paradigm.”

Further, there may be new design techniques such as extremely low-voltage designs, Wang said. “If you put something in your heart you want it to work forever. In that case you may have to extend the battery life. You may have to reduce the voltage to very low values. However, that will introduce things like your noise margins getting low, which makes your analog design very difficult. But maybe people will come up with new technologies to compensate for analog variations at such low voltages. New technologies may be developed to address these situations.”

IoT already in place
Depending on geography, privacy and security policies, there are already some interesting IoT applications in place.

Vic Kulkarni, senior vice president and general manager of the RTL Business Unit at Apache Design, pointed to remote diagnostics and the use of nanosensors. In Korea, in some senior citizen centers, the residents are completely wired. They wear nanotechnology shirts that will non-visibly sense everything from blood pressure to cholesterol levels. These, in turn, are connected to central networks to wireless networks so the children can keep track of their aging parents through a central network.

With Cisco, Microsoft and Google all making announcements about their intended participation in the Internet of Things, it seems a likely vote in the direction of ‘The Next Big Thing.’

Kiran Vittal, senior director of product marketing at Atrenta also has seen the writing on the wall for the IoT for some time. First, microcontroller customers that previously were not interested in low power started indicating their interest in power awareness. Second, about two years ago, networking players began to say they wanted to measure power and budget power and make sure everything is optimized very early because of cooling costs since these networking devices are going in server farms. Third, he said, they previously thought the 8-bit or 16-bit microcontroller developers didn’t care much about power, then they started to see that because of the Internet of Things they are processing so much data that they need to go into the next generation of microcontrollers, i.e., 32-bit microcontrollers using the ARM Cortex M0.

There are also European customers in the automotive space that are deploying methodologies across all their design teams to make sure that the chips is designed for low-power. “They never thought power was an issue before, but now they are looking at power because these automotive chips. If you look the latest Tesla it probably has two or three big smart processors and a lot of other microcontrollers,” Vittal said.

It’s been the same story in networking.

“The good news is every single segment is interested in low-power…Is this the next big thing? In terms of volume, I’m seeing these chips are applicable everywhere. If you look to your home environment you will have thousands of chips in your home or in your car or wherever that leverage all kinds of networks. They can use the lowest technology network like RFID and they can also use the highest technology network, so you have a spectrum from RFID, Zigbee to wireless LANs to LTE. This is applicable everywhere. These chips can be very low-tech for very high tech so I think it’s applicable everywhere,” he added.

To drive design starts for the IoT, Kulkarni believes what would be helpful to the industry is a best-practices methodology guide for IoT applications that encompasses IP, embedded software, EDA tools and foundries, especially because IoT applications go beyond traditional tier-one customers.

At the end of the day, the Internet of Things is an interesting rejuvenation of technology and tools in the sense that it brings new life to older technologies and it brings additional usage to EDA tools—and that floats everybody’s boat, concluded Mike Gianfagna, vice president of corporate marketing at Atrenta.