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Archive for February, 2012

Game Over? – IP beyond Moore’s Law

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

Will the creation of a repeatable, single-atom transistor mean the end of Moore’s Law and IP as we know it?

Yesterday, every technology-focused website posted some news variation about the creation of the first, repeatable single-atom transistor. What does this event mean to the semiconductor IP community?

Scientists have created a working transistor consisting of a single atom placed precisely in a silicon crystal

 Scientists from the University of New South Wales created a single-atom transistor using a precise and repeatable technique. The key word is “repeatable” which was achieved with the help of a scanning-tunneling microscope (STM). Using the STM, scientists were able to precisely manipulate hydrogen atoms around a phosphorus atom on a silicon wafer.

Although repeatable with great precision, this achievement does not mean the process is commercially viable – at least, not yet. Nevertheless, this breakthrough may accelerate the end game for Moore’s Law. Beyond the single atom lies the world of quantum computing, one which will change the way that chips are designed and manufactured. We’ll examine the quantum computing aspects of this achievement in another blog.

What does it mean to have a single-atom transistor? To answer that, we need to remember that a transistor – regardless of its size – is a device that amplifies and control the flow of an electrical current. When arranged in the proper configuration, transistors can form the very complex logic circuits that are the foundation of today’s computer systems.

Transistors where once the size of vacuum tubes before the creation of solid state manufacturing technology.

The University of New South Wales device meets the definition of a transistor but with one serious restriction. Their single-atom transistor must be kept as cold as liquid nitrogen, or minus 391 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 196 Celsius). According to the scientists, the atom sits in a channel. The flowing electrons must stay in the channel for the transistor to operate. If the temperature rises, then the electrons will gain more energy and move outside of the channel.

In theory, a logic circuit formed from single-atom transistors would be incredibly small. To put this in perspective, Intel’s latest chip, called “Sandy Bridge,” is manufactured with roughly 2.3 billion transistors spaced 32 nanometers apart. A single phosphorus atom is just 0.1 nanometers wide, which would result in incredibly small processors and thus the resulting electronic systems. But as Moore’s’ Law reaches the single-atom stage, look for even greater problems with leakage power and performance.

IP for Single-Atom Transistors?

What does an atom-sized transistor mean to the semiconductor IP community? We can understand the affect by extrapolation from the experience of the last several decades of Moore’s law. IP design and manufacturability is closely tied to the physical contrast and materials of the actual chip.

In a past blog, Neil Hand, group marketing director of SoC Realization at Cadence, explained that IP has always been tied to the manufacturing process and is becoming even more closely tied because of the move to more advanced geometries. He was quick to point out that the relationship to the process differs depending upon the nature of the IP, i.e., whether it is soft or hard IP.

Soft IP isn’t as closely tied to the underlying process as hard IP. Still, an understanding of process capabilities does allow the IP architecture to be optimized for better performance and power. Leveraging the process benefits means that the same IP can be used on different platforms—just as the same video-decoding/decompression IP can be implemented in everything from handsets to home theaters.

On the other hand, hard IP has a tightly coupled architecture that’s determined by underlined process capabilities and physical properties, Hand explains. “It would be impossible to divorce hard IP from the process. As a result, IP companies will be required to have deep in-house process expertise.”

Perhaps this is why IP giants are aligning themselves more closely to the manufacturing process. For example, ARM’s recent acquisition of Prolific, a chip design services company, should strengthen ARM’s physical IP position – including logic, embedded memory and interface cores – at the more troublesome lower nodes.

Will single-atom transistor architectures mean “game over” for Moore’s law? Probably not, since Moore’s law is an economic prediction, not a scientific theory. One way to ensure the continuation of the law is to reduce manufacturing costs. The emerging trend of using 3D layered ICs at existing or even higher process nodes will help reduce these costs while maintaining performance, at least with respect to factors such as device battery life, screen size, weight and others.

An accurate, repeatable process for creating single-atom transistors will bring significant changes to the world of chip design. Semiconductor IP, especially hard IP, is directly affected by any manufacturing changes. Further, IP will need to evolve in other ways, as it current is doing to accommodate 3D die stacking at existing nodes.

Is the IP community up to the change? If the past is any indication, then the answer is definitely – game on!

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Wireless IP Grows in Surprising Ways

Friday, February 17th, 2012

While growing, analog and wireless IP usage may face challenges in manufacturing preferences at lower nodes and emerging LTE technology trends.

Full story at IP Insider.

JohnB’s Tech Bits

Friday, February 10th, 2012

A lot of stories pass through my email in any given week. Here’s a collection of those bits that caught my attention, covering technology, engineering, science and social media. – JB

AWR, a developer of RF and Microwave modeling tools, was recently issued a patent for the automatic creation of vias in electrical circuit design. Will this be the start of via litigations?

The BBC seems to think that Twitter is the enemy. The British media giant has released a new version of its social media policies that instructs reports to file update to news editors first, instead of posting breaking news to Twitter.

Gigaom has acquired paidContent. Why should you care? It represents the growing change in the media market, one that Ed Sperling realized over 4 years ago when he started our first technology portal – System Level Design. Gigaom puts it this way: “What happens when the costs of reproduction and distribution go away? What happens when there is nothing unique about publishing anymore because users can do it for themselves?’

Does a degree in engineering or the hard sciences improve your odds at long term career success? Not necessarily, postulates Daniel Jelski, a professor of chemistry at SUNY New Paltz. He suggests that, “the answer is “non-tradable skills that can’t be computerized. At their most valuable these jobs depend on human-human interaction – empathy.” He believes that high-tech jobs won’t go way, but the will be commoditized in the global market.

Smaller cellular towers – think femto/micro/pico cell – are a growing market for multiple chip architectures. New NPD In-Stat ( research forecasts that there will be 160.3 million active small cells, and the retail value of small cell shipments will reach $14 billion by 2015.

Remember the opening scene of the original TRON movie when the circuits on a chip transformed into highways and streets of a city? Kevin Flynn, the protagonist in the story, called that city the Grid.

The Grid. A digital frontier. I tried to picture clusters of information as they moved through the computer. What did they look like? Ships? motorcycles? Were the circuits like freeways? I kept dreaming of a world I thought I’d never see. And then, one day, I got in.

 Now image a softer version of the grid with rolling hills, valleys and shoreline. Then you’ll appreciate this cool picture of a gallium antimonide semiconductor wafer surface after the metal layer was peel-off. The picture received an honorable mention in the 2011 Nikon Small World Photomicrophotography Competition.

Would you bet $100,000 that quantum computing is impossible? That’s what an MIT associate professor is doing in a contrarian move to challenge skeptics of quantum computing. At stake may be the entire notion of quantum mechanics, as this professor explains in the comment portion of this story.

Why are videos so popular with the younger generation? Could the architecture of the working memory of the brain be one reason? Can these arrangement be duplicated by on-chip memory system in silicon? While these questions are answered by this research, it does provide a basis for exploration.

Researchers from North Carolina State University have developed a new technique that allows graphics processing units (GPUs) and central processing units (CPUs) on a single chip to collaborate – boosting processor performance by an average of more than 20 percent.


More SI, Less EDA at DesignCon 2012

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

This year’s DesignCon show focused more on board-level signal intregity and testing issue than on chip design and verification.

DesignCon has changed over the years. It started as a board-level interface show. In recent years, a large chip-level Electronic Design Automation (EDA) and verification component was added (see references for past coverage of the show). This year, the EDA tools component was greatly diminished as the show returned its roots, although with a much stronger emphasis on board-level testing, debug and signal-power integrity issues.

As usual for an editor, I spent more time in meetings that actually walking the show floor. Still, there was plenty to catch my eye when I did wander onto the exhibition hall. Here is a brief summary of my meetings and show floor highlights from Designcon 2012.

Read the full story at “IP Insider