Rebalancing Power, Performance And Area

More complexity, better tools and market pressures are forcing big changes in the PPA equation; rebalancing will become a market differentiator.

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By Ed Sperling
The tradeoffs between performance, power and area are being fine-tuned to a degree never seen before in the IC business, driven partly by complexity, partly by better tools, and partly by the need to gain a competitive edge in specific applications.

Just being able to make these kinds of tradeoffs is a technological feat that marries everything from high-level modeling and synthesis to prototypes of hardware and software and better characterization of IP. But being able to use the data from these tools more effectively is changing what can be done in design.

“This is going to be a way of life going forward,” said Jack Harding, president and CEO of eSilicon. “If you look at the number of variations between process nodes, types of IP and voltage, no human can sort through all the permutations anymore and come up with an optimal design, and certainly not around PPA.”

This is particularly true at 28nm, where power, performance and area are not linear extensions from previous nodes. And in stacked die, where multiple generations of technology at different voltages are packaged together, those tradeoffs may be greater still.

“The fact is that we may not know the best combinations anymore because there are too many things to consider,” said Harding. “I’m convinced this is a permanent change, too. I liken it to place and route in the early 1990s, where it was used to help smart guys design chips. By the late 1990s that had to be automated in all chips because the gate count was too high. We’re now approaching tool-assisted SoC architectures.”

Cause and effect
At least part of what’s behind this shift is market demand for more customized solutions. The move to subsystems and off-the-shelf IP means that companies have to find a way to differentiate their chips, something that will become even more apparent as the industry begins shifting to 2.5D and 3D stacks over the next couple years. Even the software might not be enough to differentiate the product in some markets, such as Android phones.

“The stakes are higher and the tools are better,” said Wally Rhines, chairman and CEO of Mentor Graphics. “Now a microwatt matters. It can be the difference in a win or a loss.”

The same is true of area and performance. But the new wrinkle is those variables almost need to be tweaked for each customer. Naveed Sherwani, president and CEO of Open-Silicon, said that for some of the large search engine, cloud computing and social media companies, the emphasis is on performance at any cost. This is contrary to the direction of most data centers, where power has become the major focus due the cost of running and cooling racks upon racks of servers.

“The reason PPA is changing is because now we can change it,” Sherwani said. “There are a lot more tools that can play with more things that affect power, performance, area and cost. We’re heading toward a very platform-style approach to design, so the changes from one customer to another may be only about 20%. With 3D stacking and memory, the next few years should be very interesting.”

Why now?
As with all significant changes in the IC business, there is no single factor that is responsible. The push to advanced nodes has added more complexity to designs, starting with more transistors (with 3D transistor designs at 14nm), more leakage, more features that require more complex power management, more IP re-use, a larger software component that needs to be written more quickly and with energy efficiency in mind. On top of that there are better tools for making these kinds of tradeoffs, and all of the big EDA companies are working on better analysis of the data that can be added into major flows.

Still, getting sufficiently good data to make these kinds of tradeoffs isn’t easy—even with better tools.

“PPA perplexes everyone,” said Bernard Murphy, chief technology officer at Atrenta. “The time to do PPA tradeoffs is early on, but the challenge is that there are a lot of unknowns at that time. There is recognition that if you can’t solve the big problem you can break it into smaller pieces, and these days not all of the design is unknown.”

He noted that Atrenta has been examining the effect of bus fabrics on the whole PPA equation. He said the direct influence on power is less, but they do contribute heavily to idle mode power, something that will become particularly apparent once wide I/O becomes mainstream.

“One of the reasons the NoC (network-on-chip) exists in the first place, and why ARM is looking at pseudo-NoCs is to control congestion,” he said. “The bus fabrics are only getting more complicated, and there is very little expertise in detailed performance analysis.”

Education is critical across the board in PPA. Teams of software engineers working with hardware engineers on designs alongside groups that are focused on manufacturability have expanded the scope of many design engineers. To some extent, everyone will have to think like a systems engineer in the future, even if they have their own area of expertise. But the very fact that they are talking to other team members is eliminating some of the silo behavior that various teams have lived with for the past couple of decades.

The future
While PPA has always been a way to spin cost, increasingly it also is seen as a way to improve time to market. Stacked die, and re-use of IP, subsystems and even entire platforms and die, will alter this equation even more—and add far more options for trading off power, performance and area.’

Those tradeoffs already are being done on a localized basis, with one IP block versus another or one processor core or multiple cores versus one or more other cores. In the future, it could include entire chips, as well, which may be customized quickly for individual markets or customers.

These changes also are likely to bring shifts within the supply chain. How the pieces will be reassembled is unknown at this point, but most experts agree that more change is inevitable.