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Cal Berkeley dean predicts server-farm-on-a-chip

Posted: 27 Oct 2004 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:software configurable processors? synopsys? eda? transistor? asic?

Software configurable processors arranged in a sea-of processor configuration on silicon will soon enable designers to put a server farm worth of compute power on a single IC, said U.C. Berkeley's Dean of the College of Engineering Richard Newton in his keynote at the Synopsys EDA Interoperability Developers forum here Thursday (Oct. 21).

Newton's speech echoes previous scholars who have predicted that processors will become tomorrow's transistor, progressing from tens to hundreds to thousands etc. on a single IC. But Newton said those processors will be software configurable, like those offered by ARC, ARM (via its Axsys acquisition), CoWare (via its LISATek acquisition), and Tensilica. Newton is member of Tensilica's board of directors and much of his keynote was based on information from that pre-IPO configurable processor vendor.

"The future mainstream building block of electronics systems is going to be a possibly configurable possibly not clock synchronous programmer's model," said Newton. "And a majority of large silicon systems are going to consist of many of those interacting with one another asynchronously. They'll either be integrated on a single chip or consist across multiple chips."

In his speech, Newton likened the use of processors today to the use of the Model-T Ford. He described how consumers customized the Model-T Ford by bolting on a variety of shells to the basic Model-T frame to make the car perform tasks such as pulling a plow and hauling materials.

And he said that is what is happening today with processors DSPs and MPUs. Designers he said are simply bolting on new functionality around the same basic processor chassis to create SoCs.

He noted that the modern DSP architecture has become the "jack-of-all-trades" with many different shells attached to the new chassis, while the traditional ASIC, he said, "is a car without wheels."

He argued that much in the same way specialized automobiles were designed from the bottom up to do specific tasks, a tractor to pull a plow for example, software configurable processors will take the place of standard processors in many applications, allowing users to customize processing for their specific needs and applications.

A camera maker for example, may not need blistering performance but would like to give a design five more hours of battery life. Newton said a software configurable processor can be configured to do that.

Newton said that designs today are starting to commonly use more than one processor and he noted one Tensilica customer design has 180 Tensilica configurable processors on a die.

Newton noted that if the number of processors keeps increasing at a steady rate, we will soon have server farms on a chip in which a field of configurable processors each optimized for a specific task will work together for speedy computing.

He noted that a new fabric that would allow configurable processors to be arranged in a sea of processors would go a long way in helping the server-farm-on-a-chip become a reality.

"Until that happens we're going to have to make more masks and build more chips," said Newton.

- Mike Santarini

EE Times

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