Archive for the ‘Intel’ Category

I have posted numerous times about the emergence of the large ecosystems covering smartphones, tablets, laptops and eventually TV’s. Just look at the trouble Microsoft is having getting traction for Windows Mobile 7. It’s a nice operating system but the ecosystem is still limited. This value looking at the ecosystem in a large context doesn’t just apply to computers and smartphones. In the semiconductor space, the success (or lack thereof) of a foundry is heavily influenced by the surrounding ecosystem. I am using ecosystem in a broad sense. It encompases tool support, foundry technology support, and IP availability.

Smaller foundries often support a limited number of tools. An analog fab might have DRC files for Cadence’s Assura but not Synopsys’ Hercules or Mentor’s Calibre. A digital fab might support Calibre but not the others. This can drive customers away but supporting software that no customer uses is a waste of money and dilutes support for real customers. Striking the right balance of tool support can be tricky.

Technology support is related to tool support but extends to areas such as design guidance. Just because tools are supported doesn’t mean getting to the desired end result will be easy. If the device model support is piecemeal, with little guidance by the foundry, then design teams can be left with an impossible number of combinations of simulations if they are to reasonably assure manufacturability.

The largest ecosystem issue is often IP support for the target process. I remember a VP of a product line declaring that a part would be run at a foundry that was giving the chip company excellent wafer pricing. The problem was that many of the I/O’s would have to be designed from scratch. The IP didn’t exist for the target process. In other cases, the IP existed but would have to be purchased. Moving to another foundry avoided IP expenses since the IP was available under agreements already in place with no incremental use charges.

So what does a smaller foundry do? Covering all of the tool sets can mean expensive staffing. The same goes for technology support. IP support can be a frustrating catch-22 situation. IP vendors don’t target the small foundry because, well, because they are small. But… in order to grow, the small foundry needs better IP support. Argh!!!

Attacking these issues is important and it is all about creating as complete and comprehensive an ecosystem as possible. Both tool support and technology support, while having some differences, revolve around the same solution – people. Not the number of people but the quality. This is one place where individual capability trumps numbers. A great engineer who has a deep understanding of what the tools do and how they work can convert a technology file from one tool to a competing product in short order. Attacking this with numbers rather than quality just leads to frustrated customers who eventually take their business elsewhere. These engineers must deeply understand how the tools are used and what the design team’s frustrations will be. For that reason I have often hired engineers for these positions with some design background or exposed them to design so that they appreciate what is annoying and why. Similarly, a great technologist who understands the needs of design teams can save the design teams weeks and even months worth of work by using his understanding of how the process parametrics vary relative to each other to generate a concise set of simulation corners.

The IP problem is more difficult. It may be necessary to put an IP development team in place to make sure a process has at least the basics building blocks available. This is a place where inexpensive labor may be a good solution. However, some IP, particularly high speed SERDES, require a few top notch engineers. If there are a large number of processes needing IP, an optimum solution is often a small group of highly skilled engineers backed up by a pool of cost effective talent. That often means a design group either in India or China. Blending the two groups can be difficult but, properly done, it can yield big benefits.

There is one more approach to IP support which has emerged and deserves strong consideration. Just join an existing ecosystem. UMC does this by trying to match their processes to those of TSMC. UMC attempts to make it easy to use IP originally targeted at TSMC. GlobalFoundries, and to a lesser extent samsung, try to follow IBM. This relationship is open and by contract as opposed to that of UMC which is down without the support of TSMC. Samsung, IBM and GlobalFoundries are members of the Common Platform Alliance. The concept is to have common processes that share IP and that the combined capacity of these three foundries will attract IP developers. The formation this year of a larger group matching the members of the Common Platform Alliance with Intel and TSMC in a joint process development agreement, the Global 450 Consortium, has the potential to further strengthen this approach. However, unlike the Common Platform Alliance, the Global 450 Consortium has no stated goal regarding IP interoperability. Still, a common technology base opens up the possibility of easier IP portability. The big question is how will those companies on the outside, such as UMC and SMIC, react.


A friend sent me a link to an article on changes coming in microprocessors. The article is The Lifer: Why Your Core i7 Processor May Be Obsolete Sooner Than You Think. It got me thinking about writing this post not because the article has any great insight but because of the opposite. The article is too shallow.

One of the topics mentioned is specialized computing. This is nothing new. While it wasn’t the beginning, many people may remember the Intel 8087 floating point coprocessor that offloaded the 8086. Earlier there was the less well know 8031A. I have linked to a copy of the datasheet if you want to see how things used to be. The 8031A paired with the 8080 microprocessor. Interestingly, considering the two companies today, the 8031 and 8031A were licensed versions of AMD’s   AM9511 and AM9511A introduced in 1977. Today, we take it for granted that this floating point capability is built into the processors we use.

Throughout computing history the research agencies have driven the need for large, somewhat specialized computers. From the CDC 6600 (1964), to the Cray 1 (1976), to Nebulae (2010) floating point performance has driven a class of supercomputers designed for scientific and military research.  Originally these designs employed vector processors. Today, machines like the Nebulae use off the shelf graphics processors as general purpose computing engines (GPGPU). In particular, nVidia has started marketing to this area. The problem is that modern GPU’s are basically SIMD machines and bring along many of the limitations found with a SIMD architecture. Working with the limitations of SIMD and mitigating those limitations is a big topic with a large body of work so I won’t address it in depth here. For restricted problems such as graphics rendering it is a very effective approach. At the top end, the AMD 6990 graphics card contains two processor chips which together yield 3072 Stream Processors, 192 Texture Units, 128 Z/Stencil ROP Units, and 64 Color ROP Units. For graphics rendering this gives amazing performance. What it is not good at is general computing. In summary, specialized computing is nothing new and has been with us for a long time. Massively parallel specialized computing is here today.

Myslewski talks about large numbers of general purpose computing cores. We have made great progress utilizing four core and even eight core system. There are restricted problems such as design rule verification of large chip designs which are amenable to massively parallel systems. However, general purpose computing has trouble utilizing even four cores effectively. More interesting than the straight forward approach Myslewski mentions are approaches which reconsider the very nature of what a processor is. I have been thinking about this lately after watching a talk by Steve Teig of Tabula.

Steve mentions Haskell as a language of choice. This is a transition that is needed and is fundamental. We currently force fit a one CPU ecosystem onto multiCPU processors. We patch language structures and manually work to make task division successful. In graphics this is somewhat straight forward. You tell the different cores “Care 1 you work on this area of the scene, core 2 you work over here, core 3 …” Except for specialized areas such as graphics, this model does not fit what we do today when we get beyond four cores. Right now we can, at a very simplistic level, say, “Core 1 you handle operating system commands, core 2 you run the program, core 3 you take care of the anti virus background tasks, core 4…” What is wrong here is the process and mindset itself. That’s why Steve mentions Haskell. The mental process I just outlined is forcing the code onto the processor. What is needed is a new paradigm of code as architecture. I am not talking about the Tensilica approach but something closer to the work discussed here. If you read through the various papers you will see a common theme related to the problem of limited FPGA size. The idea of time as a third dimension opens the door to a possible solution. What needs to be worked out is an interface that gets around the von Neumann memory bottleneck and allows continuous reconfiguration of the FPGA. Once that is achieved, arbitrarily large code can be executed with a three dimensional FPGA (X, Y, time) as the direct instantiation of the code. For an example of this type of FPGA check out Tabula. Be careful to not get lost in the hardware although that is a key component. The main advantage of the hardware is the ability to latch its state and rapidly reconfigure. More important that that functionality is compiling down into the FPGA in a way which allows a mapping of code to circuitry that continuously reconfigures as code is executed rather than execute, save state, load code, reconfigure, execute. Let me know what you think of the concept of code as architecture.

I mentioned that Mango showed that Microsoft could come on strong once they recognized they were behind. I saw a few unexpected features in Mango and it gave me hope that Microsoft was still in the game if very far behind. However, with the release of more information about Windows 8, I am truly surprised. Microsoft really gets it. They see the need for a unified OS across platforms and for a transparent user experience. Furthermore, Microsoft is using its strength on the desktop to leverage itself into the tablet and phone space. This isn’t my pick for the easiest path in general but it is the easiest and best way for Microsoft. More than other releases, Windows 8 will be about an aggressive business strategy. I love it when business, the consumer, and engineering mesh at such an intimate level.

Windows 8 is important on several levels. First, let’s start with the fact that it will not only run on X86 CPU’s but on ARM. Wow! Let that sink in. This means Windows on a CPU that isn’t compatible with the Intel X86 architecture. There will be no emulation layer so current X86 apps won’t run on ARM based hardware. However, this is important in and of itself. Microsoft will be encouraging developers writing lighter apps to write in Java and HTML5 so the apps will be independent of the CPU used. Add this to Apple toying with the idea of an ARM based MacBook Air and you know why Intel is nervous.

The next surprise is the breadth of Windows 8. It is really a tablet  OS where the mouse and keyboard can substitute for touch. You read that correctly. The OS is, in many ways, a tablet OS first and a desktop OS second. This doesn’t mean a compromised desktop OS. What it does mean is an OS with touch infused throughout.  The same OS will run on tablets, laptops and desktops.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words and the next surprise is best illustrated with a couple of pictures. Here is one of Windows 8 on a PC:

Next I have a picture of the home screen from a phone running Windows Phone.

Do you see what I am excited about? Just like Apple, Microsoft is making the desktop OS look and feel like the phone OS. Do you believe me now when I talk about the push for transparency of the computing experience? Now go back to the comment above about Microsoft pushing for apps written in HTML5 and Java. Those will be easy to port to Windows Phone and vice versa. Microsoft may be late but they are coming on strong.

What does this mean on the business side? Obviously the push onto ARM is a threat to Intel and AMD. In terms of the other hardware and software players here is how I see it. RIM is in an increasingly bad position. They have zero desktop presence and Microsoft is stronger in the corporate world than RIM. Windows 8 might seem independent of RIM’s Blackberry world but, in actuality, it has the potential to do great damage. HP may take a hit too. They are betting a lot on WebOS. I don’t see what the value add is for WebOS. Call this one more wait and see but be skeptical. HP could quickly shift to being Windows 8 centric if need be. Heck, they are Windows centric today.  Apple probably fairs OK in the near term. Longer term they might lose some of their momentum. However, I see Apple as the best positioned against Windows 8 if they can continue to move towards merging iOS and OSX. I’m still very strong on Apple. Next up for Apple is iOS 5 and iCloud which will be announced next week. Windows 8 could be problematic for Google. I have trouble believing in Chrome as a desktop OS. Google will still be ahead in the TV space but compared to Microsoft and Apple they lack the desktop. Android is the largest selling smartphone OS and we are about to be inundated with Android tablets including some excellent ones such as the Samsung 10.1. I still see Microsoft being behind Google but it is a lot more interesting than it was a day ago. Apple just made iWork available on the iPhone in addition to the iPad and OSX devices. Microsoft will have Office running across all devices. Will people buy into Google’s idea that web based solutions are the best answer for their productivity apps? People may but only if Microsoft screws things up. Then again, Microsoft mucked things up in the past with poorly conceived products like Works.

Will FinFETs Save Intel?

Posted: May 31, 2011 in ARM, Intel, Tablet
Tags: , , , , ,

I have said before that Intel’s big ace in the hole is its process technology. At the beginning of this month, Intel made an announcement regarding their Tri-Gate technology. They make it sound completely unique to Intel but in reality it exists at several companies although the industry usually refers to it as FinFET technology. Never mind that others also have this technology. The key is that Intel can out process those guys.  Intel consistently has superior real world (volume production ready) process technology compared to anyone. When the world moved to 90nm and below, leakage current became a big deal. Many would say it became the dominant design factor if you are at all concerned with power. This meant that going smaller didn’t necessarily reduce power. It meant complex design choices just to save power. You could design with a low leakage transistor or a low power one. Today designers often mix transistor types to get the best balance of speed and power. FinFETs offer a move back to the old world where smaller meant both faster and lower power.

For decades we have lived in a world where processing speed and cost were the big drivers. What hasn’t been a huge issue has been power. Yeah, we would give it lip service and laptops would have to take it into account but it still took a back seat to speed and cost. That has changed. That is how ARM went from being a niche architecture to threatening the behemoth of the CPU world. Now power is a major focus of Intel. If all things were equal it would be a case of realizing the future too late to stop where things are headed. But… all things aren’t equal and it isn’t a level playing field. Intel has huge resources and access to proprietary process technology. The world won’t move from ARM to Atom just because Intel wants them too. Companies like the fact that they can bake their own chips by licensing an ARM core. The ARM architecture is now standard in both the smartphone and tablet worlds. However, all phone and tablet companies are pushing up against power consumption that runs into the brick wall of battery technology. Batteries are improving but not as fast as the demand for mobile processing power. If Intel can make Atom based chips clearly superior to ARM based approaches when it comes to power then they just might be able to win companies over. They are trying very hard. Stay tuned.

It may seem like I have been mostly regurgitating news. Look deeper. I am trying to point out the trends of convergence and transparency and how they are reaching everywhere. On the surface Google Wallet is a nice tweak to how you pay for what you buy. In terms of those affected it is easy to see the retailers, banks and credit card companies. If you look on the surface at semiconductor companies you might just think about those chips which enable NFC. This is part of something much bigger that affects many more companies. NFC services like Google Wallet will make transactions more transparent i.e. easier and more convenient. They also converge services into the phone and continue pushing the phone towards becoming your dominant computing platform. This is what I started this blog off with. It doesn’t matter if Google Wallet in it’s present form becomes big or not. It’s a symptom of a larger movement. No matter what business you are in you need to evaluate your strategy with convergence and transparency in mind. How will your business play out when the phone is the dominant computing platform? Intel and AMD are reacting to this today. For once the interests of AMD and Intel are aligned. They need to bring the X86 architecture to tablets and then mobile phones. Microsoft is also reacting as they worry about Windows being marginalized. Think how differently this would have been had the iPhone and iPad been based on the Atom processor. For the other chip companies there is the increasing importance of LTE and the cloud. Flash memory will continue to be pushed to grow in density and decrease in price. The world is moving towards one gigabyte of storage in the phone. Remember reading about how over built the global network is? Think again. OLED screens will finally become a mainstream technology driven by the phone. Eventually they will grow to be the dominant technology in both laptops and TV’s.  This shift affects media. The RIAA and  MPAA continue their vain attempts at protecting intellectual property rather than embracing the technology trends and profiting from them. That’s an entire blog (or two or three) in and of itself. Is your company preparing for the upcoming changes? More importantly, have you looked deep to see how convergence and transparency will change your business landscape?

Did Intel read my blog? Interesting posts about Intel here and here and here.

Of the Android tablets, the Xoom was the first to look reasonable but the iPad 2 made it look dated. The first real iPad 2 challenger appears to be the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. Don’t confuse this with the thicker 10.1v. Engadget has a good review here. They also have a review of the HTC Flyer posted here. While not as positive as the Galaxy Tab review, I think the integration of audio and notes on the Flyer has a lot of promise.

Does anyone else think Microsoft buying Nokia’s smartphone business is a bad idea? That would make Microsoft like Apple but still trying to be like Google. Pick an approach! If Microsoft tries to straddle the fence then they will fail. Why should HTC or anyone else make a Windows Mobile phone if their direct competition on the Windows Mobile space will be Microsoft. Microsoft could wind up being the sole manufacturer of Windows Mobile phones. At that point I give a big advantage to Apple.

I haven’t talked much about Chrome and the Chromebook. A good article on them is here.

If you are following what I am saying about transparency and convergence I suggest you read  Sarah Rotman Epps’ Blog.

As reported by VR-Zone, it looks like Intel’s upcoming Cedarview Atom platform will sport PowerVR graphics from Imagination Technologies. This is a big deal. PowerVR is also used in Apple’s chips that power the iPhone and iPad. PowerVR is set to be the standard for graphics across a broad range of hardware. This will make it difficult for other technologies to enter the space as PowerVR becomes the industry standard. The loser here is Intel. For Cedarview, they are passing over their own graphics technology in favor of PowerVR. That means paying royalties to Imagination Technologies. One of those cracks in Intel’s armor just got a little bigger.

During its peak no one ever thought Rome would fall. Similarly, in the world of technology, no one has thought the pairing of Windows and Intel could be challenged. For decades Microsoft has dominated the computer software space while Intel, with its X86 processor line, has dominated the chip side of high tech. This Wintel hegemony has been unassailable. It hasn’t been for lack of trying. IBM tried with OS2. Apple had some limited success once they brought out OSX. Motorola tried with the 6800 and 68000 chips. Sun tried with the SPARC processor and there was MIPS. These are just a few. HP, DEC and Fairchild had processors. IDT had the Winchip. Some survive today but only AMD, with its X86 clones, ever had much success as measured by volume shipped. Today things have changed. After WWI, the French built the Maginot Line. Everyone agreed it was unassailable. What France neglected was the rise of mobile warfare. Since the Germans couldn’t defeat the Maginot Line they went around it. The same is happening today in both the operating system area and in microprocessors. The attack on the Wintel hegemony is both real and potentially fatal. The outcome hasn’t been determined but the battle has started. Just like Germany flanked the Maginot Line, the Wintel alliance is being flanked. For Germany the enabler was mobile warfare and the development of the blitzkrieg strategy. Today the enabler is the smartphone together with iOS and Android.

In Q4 2010, according to IDC, there were more smartphones sold than PC’s. This is an important statistic. It means that the smartphone is set to become the dominant computing platform. Few smartphones run a Microsoft OS. Currently Microsoft’s share is at 7.5% which is down from 8.4% just a few months ago (see here). As far as the CPU, most smartphones use the ARM processor (see here). The tablet is more closely aligned to the smartphone than to the desktop. iOS and Android are the dominant operating systems. Microsoft won’t have a contender on the market till 2012. How about another shocker. Apple has surpassed Microsoft in both revenue and profit (Businessweek). No longer is Apple the little weakling hoping Microsoft won’t notice them. During the 90’s Microsoft was threatened by Netscape. Once Microsoft awoke to the threat it wasn’t a fair fight. The sheer size of Microsoft allowed them to give away Internet Explorer and destroy Netscape. Today the battle is different. Both Apple and Google have massive resources.

I’m a chip guy. I’ve been talking software. What about chips? Specifically, what about Intel? On the plus side Intel has vast wealth and controls the best semiconductor fabrication technology in the world. Intel continues to push R&D so, at least when it comes to semiconductor process technology, they can’t be accused of sitting still. They make the Atom processor line so they have an entrant in the low power, low cost processor market. Their problem is convergence at the chip level. Recall that I said convergence is much bigger than people think. Convergence is the dominant trend in the semiconductor business. More and more functionality is being integrated onto a single chip. Chip count is going down. Look inside a DVD player and you will see that there isn’t much there. Intel has made its money selling discrete microprocessors and selling them at high margins base on a near monopoly in the desktop CPU space. Back in 2009, Intel made the Atom core available through TSMC. However, the main core used today is ARM. The Apple A5 chip contains a dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 MPCore CPU and a dual-core PowerVR SGX543MP2 GPU. Samsung is the foundry for the chip although Apple may be moving to TSMC. LG is getting into the act and will be designing its own chip. The future is clear. Companies are buying IP and integrating it into one chip. This is a huge threat to Intel. With ARM becoming the dominant processor, Intel is losing its grip on the processor market. Even if Atom cores sell well the profits will be nothing like what Intel has seen in the past. None of this spells near term doom for Intel. They continue to mint money in the desktop and laptop space. Netbooks are dominated by Atom processors. Long term the outlook is different. Netbooks are being hurt by ARM based tablets. The smartphone is driving convergence. Soon it will be the smartphone, tablet and TV vs. the notebook and desktop. One rumor already has Apple moving from X86 to ARM for their laptops. This move seems premature to me but something that will eventually happen. In and of itself this wouldn’t threaten Intel. Apple isn’t their major client. However, imagine if the Android market were to progress in that fashion i.e. ARM based Android phones drive an ARM based Android tablet world which eventually drives a Chrome/Android notebook market. The force behind this? Convergence! Intel sees this and is pushing its own smartphone solution. For this reason the outcome isn’t certain. What is certain is that there will be a battle royal with Intel no longer having a monopoly.

If you are in the chip business there is something broader to be taken from this. Integration continues to increase. The system on a chip, SoC, is the dominant trend. That may seem obvious but I continue to see companies ignoring this trend. Analog companies fail to see that they will be integrated into an SoC. RF companies don’t see how they are being isolated as surrounding functionality gets integrated. Consider the GPS chip. The market for stand alone GPS chips continues to diminish as better and better solutions get integrated into chips like the Quallcomm MSM8660. Either you are a Quallcomm or Broadcom and doing the integration or you are being marginalized in the GPS marketplace. Expand this to the chip business in general. Sound chips (are you listening Wolfson), power sequencers, and others will be integrated. Consolidation is happening in semiconductors just like it happened to the automobile industry during the 1900’s.