A Different Kind Of Design

More granular processors and components will change the design process and the user experience.

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Intel’s announcements at the Intel Developer Forum this week that it will be creating physically smaller packages that can run on far less energy raises some interesting questions about the future of all design. We’ve become accustomed to one-chip implementations, whether that’s a monolithic processor or an SoC with lots of processors. In the future, though, there may be multiple chips, all developed for very specific purposes.

What we’re witnessing isn’t just the return to a collection of chips on a board that were put there because they couldn’t be incorporated into the main logic chip. Instead, this is a well-thought-out, extremely granular approach to what goes where. In many cases, it will be cost that drives these decisions. But at least part of the business decision will be an understanding of how to get processing done the most effectively and with the least amount of energy. In essence, you only add what you need.

Think about a smart phone, for example. The key challenge there is battery life, not performance. If you don’t plug it in at night, or you run applications with lots of graphics, your phone begins showing the red bar of death. Continue using it at your own peril. In this type of setting, the market has been almost exclusively ARM- or MIPS-based. In the future, it could well be based on multiple chips, including Intel-based SoCs, as more performance is added into these devices to make them more useful.

This trend is particularly evident in tablet devices such as the iPad, where streaming video processing is required and where search needs to be sufficiently fast, but where battery life also needs to be sufficient to last through a long user session. In this case both performance and energy efficiency are required, often at a very granular level depending upon user preferences. Instead of an ARM or MIPS processor for efficiency, the ARM or MIPS processors may be the main performers, coupled with an ARC processor or Tensilica DSP for audio and an Intel processor for efficient search.

The semiconductor industry historically has used general-purpose processors with customized software and IP. In the future, designs likely will entail a combination of much more tailored processors that more effectively use even more tailored software and IP. And as simple as this sounds in theory, the impact will be enormous for everyone involved—from design to verification to manufacturing to the end users of the devices.

–Ed Sperling