The Long And Painful Path To Power Optimization

Building a mobile Internet device requires a focus on power at every level, from the initial vision for the end product to the tools used to build the components


By Ed Sperling
Think about any mobile Internet device today. Batteries typically last all day, applications shut down with ease, and the number of things it can do has reached the point where many people typically carry one device on the road rather than multiple devices they used to lug around several years ago.

Perhaps even more astounding is the price drop on these devices. A basic cell phone five years ago cost hundreds of dollars. Add to that an MP3 player for a few hundred dollars, a GPS system for a few hundred more, and portable gaming systems fore even more. All of that now runs on a single chip, often at the most advanced process nodes where real estate is plentiful.

But getting to this point, and moving further is showing pain points across the supply chain—particularly as power becomes a critical part of every facet of the design. What used to be a simple tradeoff between area and performance is now tilted heavily in favor of power. Software that used to be written independently of the hardware now must be written in conjunction with the hardware—even at the application level.

All semiconductors begin with the architecture and the design. But devices like a mobile Internet device begin in reverse—they gauge user demand, weigh the cost of development, and develop the spec that feeds into the supply chain all the way down to the semiconductor.

No pain, no gain
What’s interesting is just how many pain points are scattered throughout the supply chain that are affected by power. At the uppermost level, the biggest issues are business context and time to market. The Blackberry, made by Research In Motion, developed a killer application for corporate e-mail that allowed it to initially sew up the corporate market. The Apple iPhone added a slew of other applications, with e-mail initially almost a secondary issue.

But what plagued both devices, at least initially, was the limited battery life. Those issues are improving, thanks to some enormous leaps in engineering in every facet of the devices. Even PCs can now last most of the day, depending upon the applications being used.

Sandwiched between the high-resolution screens and the lithium-ion batteries, though, those gains haven’t come easily—and they may be significantly tougher to achieve at each future rev of the components inside those devices.

“Our biggest challenge isn’t even in the engineering,” said Nick Ilyadis, chief technology officer for Broadcom’s enterprise networking group. “It’s customer requirements changing on the fly. OEMs come in and change the features very late in the design cycle—sometimes right before tapeout. They’re developing Brand Y and they see Brand X change their product at the last minute.”

One solution is being agile—making changes whenever possible in firmware or software. A second is being aware of the market trends. “Our customers tell us what they want to tell us, but their holding back can create a problem,” Ilyadis said. “Our solution has been to talk to the end user. We need to get to the end user to be pre-emptive.”

On mobile platforms, Broadcom has developed its own power management capabilities. It also has been working with power islands for several generations, allowing changes in performance and power on a per-cell basis.

But at each node, there is more to put on the chip—and a far greater number of issues such as leakage and mixed-signal integration and verification. Lisa Su, senior vice president and general manager of Freescale’s networking and multimedia division, said the big challenge in her organization is how to put a base station on a chip.

“Integration is the problem,” she said. “Multicore communications processors are quite different from a PC. You’ve got up to eight cores and some of them are used for accelerating the other cores. So you’ve got to integrate those accelerators. The question is how do you optimize the processing performance and the acceleration without adding more power. You can put eight cores on a piece of silicon, but the challenge is to get eight times the performance.”

Su said that the challenge is figuring out what to integrate and what not to ingegrate. “How do you get 24 hours of battery life,” she said. “There’s a very complex tradeoff between hard wired and programmable. For this, hardware-software co-optimization is critical, and there’s a lot of momentum in this area. We’ve grown by leaps and bounds in this area. If you take the same piece of hardware and software and you optimize the software, you can increase battery life by two times.”

Doing more with less
The problems felt at the board-level and the SoC-level are only magnified as you move down a couple of notches into the blocks and technologies that reside on a piece of silicon.

“Low power touches on everything you do, from the logic through the physical process and up into the software,” said George Zafiropoulos, vice president of solutions marketing at Synopsys. “You can do everything to make the hardware efficient, but power efficiency also now depends on the behavior of the software.”

Zafiropoulos noted that even at the top of the product development cycle, power is now a major consideration. “It’s often a question of cost and the difficulty of implementation vs. the benefit of low power,” he said. “To make a chip with 30% less power is great, but if you leave the iPhone modem on you’re going to blow the power budget. You have to address this at the system and the software level as well as the component level.”

Chipmakers also have to bring together teams of hardware and software developers to work in tandem rather than independently, which is not something that comes easily to them. Broadcom has created what it calls “chip leads,” who are engineers that can bridge the gap between the hardware and software engineers. They basically work as translators back and forth between the teams as they move down the line toward tapeout.

Zafiropoulos said that has been a big barrier for some companies. “Power is forcing conversations between software and hardware development teams,” he said. “This started on the process side with CMOS. Then it moved to logic. In the last 10 years, the design circuit was gate clocked. The next wave will be software. The problem is that every time you push the limit on power, the response from engineers is to guard band. They over-engineer, which takes more power.”

Connection overload
Part of what has made devices so power hungry also is a result of the I/O—the connection to the outside world. Every device needs to be connected, and the more bandwidth the less wait time for downloading everything from text to videos.

“One of the grand challenges we’re facing is layer one in these devices—the radio receiver and transmitter,” said Chris Rowen, Tensilica’s CTO. “Bandwidth is an order of magnitude higher, but the power budget is 50% lower. How do you get a factor of 15 in energy efficiency and still include the supporting standards.”

He said this is particularly troublesome with LTE, which holds the promise for lower power but so far has never been implemented. “The challenge is how you get there in the first place, how you get there quickly, and how you get there within the power envelope.”

Part of the challenge is also in the basic wiring structure. Charles Janac, chairman and CEO of network-on-chip vendor Arteris, said that from a physical design standpoint there simply are too many wires. “That’s causing congestion points and problems with timing closure,” Janac said. “Then we’re stuffing hundreds of thousands of transactions per second down those wires.”

Those wires also get thinner at each new process node. Janac said the solution is a single point-to-point connection rather than a multiple wire mesh structure. While the mesh bus structure sufficed at older process nodes, it doesn’t have the speed or the flexibility if changes need to be made to the design—which they often do.

Hot spots
One issue few people are talking about—but which many companies are watching, somewhat warily—is what happens when there are too many connections. Connections internally are problematic, but the ones outside the chip generate heat.

“Down the road, there are still serious concerns about temperature,” said Jim Davis, vice president of software and systems engineering at Actel. “The parts are getting bigger and bigger because we’re basically getting gates for free, but the I/O’s don’t scale with the gates.”

Add to that static power leakage, which is becoming worse at each new process node, and the amount of heat that needs to be dealt with can cause serious problems.

Some of these problems, most notably the analog design portions of a chip, are actually better dealt with at older process geometries. In fact, there is almost no advantage to doing analog at advanced process nodes except to keep it on the same piece of silicon. That has prompted a variety of different responses—everything from programmable analog on an FPGA to high-speed interconnects between chips and research into 3D stacking.

The low-power crystal ball
The list of pain points goes on and on. But what is becoming clear to more people—and companies like IBM have been preaching this for most of the decade—is that design needs to become more holistic. That’s easier at an integrated device manufacturer like IBM or Intel, however, than in a disaggregated commercial chip development world.

“Low power has to be dealt with in a holistic manner,” said Nizar Abdallah, Actel’s director of engineering. “You need to deal with all possible angles at the same time, starting with the technology and the process. Then you have to look at the features, fabric and modes.”

For fabless companies, this requires coordination not only of internal hardware and software teams, but with the architectural teams of all companies in the supply chain and all the tools vendors that service the supply chain—something that points firmly toward an industry filled with more standards.

“In the beginning of chip development, the only people who could attack the problem were the ones who could design from scratch,” said Cary Chin, director of technical marketing for low power solutions at Synopsys. “Standards allowed more companies to create chips. Low power is headed in that direction. And what is successful is not always at the bleeding edge.”

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