Power Is A Global Issue

The Inside Track: Why power has become so important and where the big advances will be in the future.

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Power is now the No. 1 target in developing chips. In a keynote speech at the recent Cadence Verification Summit, James “Jim” Hogan—an EDA investor associated with companies such as Sonics, Nimbic, Solido, AutoESL, Altos and many others, and previously part of Cadence’s Telos venture arm—made the point that power is the big problem that needs to be solved.

We all know that reducing power in chips is a goal, often driven by the problems associated with getting the heat out of the chip, but Hogan had a different perspective on it. To find out more about this, we have to take a step back.

Even though it may be tough for hardware engineers to swallow, software is where the real action is these days. With each generation, the real moneymaking opportunities move higher up the product ladder. Hogan used the iPhone as an example. He said the phone’s capabilities are driven by its software, but it is iTunes that makes Apple all of its money. The phone feeds the channel, which has the high margins associated with it. Amazon does the same with its Kindle, sending customers to the store to buy books, music, apps, etc.

“In these presentations you have to have a problem, the crisis and then herd everyone to the solution you want to talk about,” he quipped. “I want to talk about software and so I have to set the problem up by saying this is an impossible problem. As we go from chip to system to application, how do you optimize across those domains for power and performance?”

Hogan talked about how software extends a hardware platform’s life, but added that you want to migrate improvements in power and performance into the hardware as quickly as you can. At one end of the scale are electric car owners, who face perpetual anxiety about their batteries. Will they run out of power before you reach their destination? But we all have the same issue with our phones, which is Hogan’s point.

Consider a residential gateway, which he says has 5 million lines of code running on it. Some of this is control code, some of it is in protocol converters, some in the TV decoder. Basically it is spread around the chip and running in parallel.

“If you see a cheetah, most of the time they are sleeping,” said Hogan. “When they see an antelope come by, they can really turn it on. They have a hit rate of about one in five so they really have to conserve energy for when the next opportunity comes along. This is how nature does it. They build a thing that can run at 70 mph, but they also make it sleep a lot.” He pointed to a small company called Aggios, which is working on the problem of power optimization. There isn’t much information available about this company, but in a press release dated June 4 it announced CLIOS Power Manager for Mindspeed’s Comcert 2000 Communications Processor. The diagram below shows the improvements in power consumption Aggios achieved by looking at usage scenarios and optimizing the software.

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After doing software power optimization, consumption dropped from 8.1 watts for an unturned system to 3.5 watts. So why is this such a big deal? Well, quite simply, because this was for an NTT gateway that will be deployed in Japan. There are 51,950,504 households in Japan, and NTT has three quarters of the market. That equates to a power savings across all of the devices of 179,229,238 watts, or about a quarter of the power expected from the Namie-Odaka Nuclear power plant before it was canceled as a result of the Fukushima-Daiichi meltdown. According to Hogan, this is how important software has become.

Small savings across a large number of people really does make a difference. The United States, in comparison, is largest consumer of power in the world. As engineers, we should be thinking about power at all levels of our lives. That’s Hogan’s message. We need to take power reduction seriously at all levels.