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Partners to rev PowerPC

Posted: 17 Apr 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:David Lammers? PowerPC? Applied Micro Circuits? AMCC? Intrinsity?

Bringing new energy to the PowerPC architecture, Applied Micro Circuits Corp. is working with Intrinsity Inc., developer of a form of mixed dynamic and static logic, on a PowerPC core that could operate in the 3GHz range. The partnership design effort, if successful, would bring AMCC into the high-performance end of the networking-IC market now dominated by such companies as Freescale and PMC-Sierra, though AMCC is expected to trade off performance for reduced power, depending on the application.

The new core will be used in SoCs aimed initially at telecom control-plane systems where the convergence of voice, video and data over IP networks is creating a need for "more compute power at every node of the network," said Brian Wilkie, a VP at AMCC.

The fastest PowerPC core now available from AMCC is in the 800MHz range, Wilkie said. He declined to say when the new core, equipped with a shallow pipeline appropriate for embedded applications, will be available. The AMCC-Intrinsity co-design, he said, will ensure "a significant improvement in performance, and we can do it without going to exotic wafer technologies such as SOI [silicon-on-insulator] or strained silicon."

"Working with Intrinsity is somewhat of a radical strategy, but it may work out," said Linley Gwennap, an analyst at The Linley Group Inc. AMCC has been in need of a faster processor core, he said, and "Intrinsity has a lot of smart guys that have stuck with their ideas for a long time."

Intrinsity was started in 1997 by a group of 21 engineers drawn from several companies, including Texas Instruments, Ross Technologies and Motorola. Over a five-year period, they developed a form of mixed static and dynamic logic called Fast14 (14 is the atomic number of silicon), as well as a suite of EDA tools and a new clocking scheme.

The innovations resulted in logictargeted to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.'s foundry processthat was significantly faster, but consumed more power than conventional static logic.

Using their own EDA tools, the Intrinsity engineers developed a general-purpose MIPS-architecture processor called FastMIPS, and a DSP engine, FastMath. Neither made much headway in the then-depressed market for telecom silicon.

Two years ago, Intrinsity turned to a licensing model and signed up ATI Technologies Inc. in a co-design effort to convert a preexisting ATI graphics chip by inserting Fast14 into key circuits. Mike Becker, VP of engineering, said Intrinsity finished that job and is now working with several other licensing customers that do not wish to go public. AMCC and Intrinsity engineers have been developing the PowerPC core for some months, he added, although the relationship was publicly announced only last week.

Dynamic logic tends to be power-hungry, so the Intrinsity Fast14 technology has been modified to reduce power consumption, Becker said. "We have developed a better way to manage the clocks to conserve power, and have the ability to design in static and dynamic logic," he said. "We are not relying solely on dynamic logic to hit 3GHz." AMCC's product specs will vary on peak performance, depending on their power budgets.

Gaining momentum
Craig Lund, CTO at Mercury Computer Systems Inc., said that in his view, the PowerPC ecosystem continues to gain momentum, with the AMCC-Intrinsity deal the latest burst of new energy.

When Intrinsity shipped its FastMath DSP to Mercury several years ago, Lund said, the "early samples had no significant flaws. To meet targets on schedule is really rare in the processor industry. The fact that their processors didn't make it in the market wasn't because of technical reasonsit had to do with the telecom recession."

Much of the packet processor work from AMCC's former MMC Networks Inc. operation has been based on datapath processors, although the company's 2004 acquisition of IBM Microelectronics' Power PC 400-series business moved AMCC into control-plane designs in recent years. The $227 million deal gave AMCC sole rights to sell both standard-product and core versions of the 400 family. IBM, for its part, retained development rights for the 700 and 900 PowerPC series.

Analyst Gwennap said that AMCC has been a bit slow to capitalize on those PowerPC cores and has not delivered significantly different SoCs for the networking-infrastructure market since taking over the line. AMCC's Wilkie said the company has added security functions, Gigabit Ethernet and support for DDR1 and DDR2 memories, as well as new products for the storage market based on the 800MHz PowerPC 440 cores developed at IBM. "We have taken an evolutionary approach, but that is what the market wants," he said.

Freescale Semiconductor Inc. uses PowerPC cores in its PowerQuicc line of communication processors, although AMCC has emphasized integration with framers and pointer processors for use in Sonet rings and access systems, rather than the multichannel aggregators used with the Freescale PowerQuicc.

AMCC has spent the last decade assembling a variety of acquired and homegrown communication processor architectures, such as the Amazon from Cimaron Communications Inc., cell processor chips from Maker Communications Inc. and the broad nP packet-forwarding families developed at MMC. In 2003, it acquired IBM's switching-fabric chip business. Hifn Inc. had earlier acquired IBM's nPower network processor line.

Lund said he is keeping an eye on the AMCC-Intrinsity effort, as well as on P.A. Semi, the Dan Dobberpuhl-led company that came out of stealth mode last October. P.A. Semi is developing a 64bit PowerPC processor family, starting with a dual-core device that will operate at 2GHz with typical power dissipation in the range of 5-13W. A P.A. Semi spokeswoman said the chip includes all north-bridge, south-bridge and network-interface functionality.

"If you're just looking at the core, worst-case power dissipation runs at 4W at 1.5GHz and 7W at 2GHz. We could crank up the speed, but customers are very attracted" to the company's power consumption targets, the spokeswoman said. P.A. Semi expects to have sample silicon of the dual-core design by the end of this year, with single-core and quad-core devices planned for 2007 and an eight-core chip in 2008, she said.

- David Lammers
EE Times

Additional reporting by Loring Wirbel

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