Will People Stop Buying Electronics?
It is always fascinating to follow trend lines, and then to extrapolate them out toward infinity to see what absurd conclusions you can reach. We do that a lot with Moore’s Law around here, and it’s pretty easy to come to absurd conclusions extrapolating on those particular exponentials.
Even with the absurdity disclaimer in place, however, it is interesting to look to the not-too-distant future implications of our most recent half-century of progress. Yes, the cost of a transistor has dropped to … so close to zero that we might want to finally just call it zero. In truth, most of the cost of designing a silicon chip today is the non-recurring engineering costs, not the cost of the silicon area. By the time you amortize all those huge expenses over your production run, the cost of the silicon area itself becomes pretty insignificant. In fact, silicon starts to look a lot more like software - where all of the cost is for development and the incremental cost of an additional copy is basically zero.
A Whole New Way of Switching
I love surprises like this. You go into what promises to be a wonky, even dull, conference presentation – and come out agog.
That’s exactly what happened to me at the recent ICCAD in San Jose. It was a presentation based on a collaboration between the University of Michigan, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and National Tsing Hua University about some placement or routing algorithm, but it happened to involve a transistor type that I’d never heard of. And… I don’t know, there was something about the regularity of it, perhaps its elegance, illuminated through a very lucid presentation, that caught my fancy. Heck, even with no prior knowledge, I could actually follow most of the talk. That was exciting enough. Great success!
So… what was this thing? It was a way of implementing logic on a fabric of single-electron transistors (SETs). In fact, a reconfigurable fabric. This could be your new FPGA some years hence. But, while I could follow the logic of the presentation, I had no idea what a SET was, nor did I understand why certain constraints existed that affected the algorithms presented.
Separate Flows Target Software and Hardware
The problem... is you.
I know, it seems a bit harsh, blaming FPGA designers for restricting the expansion of the FPGA market. After all, FPGA designers are the fans, right? We are the loyal, the ones who have supported the technology all these decades, the ones who have toiled and struggled and applied our customer-side creativity to help solve the myriad challenges associated with getting one of the coolest and oddest chip architectures ever invented to behave well enough for actual system use.
Are You Ready for Tomorrow?
There are times when you shouldn't really think too deeply about things. Last week I was driving along the motorway from London to Winchester. While accelerating to overtake, I saw the engine pass through 4,000 rpm, and I wondered about each piston moving from stationary at top dead centre to stationary at bottom dead centre and then back to top dead centre 50 times a second. (Geeky? Moi?) Sadly, I can't perform in my head the sum that would calculate the speed at which each piston was moving at its fastest, but it must be pretty speedy, and that cycle of movement would be putting all sorts of stresses on all sorts of metal parts. I eased my mental stress by consoling myself that, at least in my 15-year-old Golf, there wasn't software running on silicon to control the engine.
So I didn't have to worry that the software could be like that in the Toyotas that may have suffered unintended acceleration. There has been no resolution on whether the software caused the issue. The evidence of software guru Michael Barr was so damning that, while he couldn't say that the software caused the incident, he had the Toyota lawyers worried. Add to this the way in which the opposing legal team were being successful in throwing dust into the eyes of the jury and sowing doubt into their minds, and it is clear why Toyota settled out of court.
Xilinx Heats Up the Race
The problem is programming.
If it were just a straight-up race to see what kind of chip delivers the most processing for the least power, FPGAs would have won long ago. A custom hardware version of just about any algorithm you can name, carefully optimized for FPGA LUT fabric, will run much faster, with less latency and far less power, than anything you can do with any conventional processor.
But what about GPUs?
Yes, that includes GPUs - especially the power part. And these days, it’s getting more and more to the point that power is the ONLY part. In big-iron computing applications such as large datacenters, you could always add more cores, servers, or processors. But you can’t add more processing if you can’t pipe more power into the building or get more heat out. Many datacenters are running up against exactly that issue right now. That’s why you see huge server farms constructed where power is cheap and abundant. And, for the companies that need giant server farms, power is usually the largest business expense.
SynthOS Tool Generates Custom RTOS From Standard C Code
Pop quiz: When is an operating system not an operating system?
Answer: When it’s your own code, acting as if it were an operating system. Sound interesting? Or just confusing? Read on, Dear Programmer.
We’re all familiar with standard embedded operating systems such as Linux, Android, LynxOS, ThreadX, uCOS, and so forth. They’re all great products, and they all have hundreds of loyal and happy users. That’s splendid.
But regardless of your particular OS allegiance, you have to admit that you are limited to a small number of choices. In other words, while there are nearly infinite variations in embedded hardware, there’s a limited number of possibilities for embedded operating systems. There are a zillion different MCUs and CPUs, but only a handful of RTOS options. Hardware spans a continuum, while software is more of a step function. Why is that?
Sensors Stay Steady
On April 19, 1965, Electronics magazine ran an article called “Cramming More Components Onto Integrated Circuits.” It was written by an engineer from Fairchild Semiconductor, and it contained a simple prediction that turned out to be the trend that changed the world. Gordon Moore’s article is the reference point for the explosive growth in semiconductor capability that has lasted for almost fifty years now.
In that same year, there was another article in that same magazine describing a device invented by Harvey Nathanson of Westinghouse Labs that combined a tungsten rod over a transistor to form a “microscopic frequency selective device” - the very first MEMS device. The device was later patented as the “Resonant Gate Transistor.”
So - MEMS and logic transistors have both been around for almost fifty years. And, since MEMS and logic transistors are fabricated in the same factories, using the same techniques, and used in the same systems, there is a natural temptation to draw correlations between them.
Editor's Note: While Amelia's Halloween Fish Fry had us all running out and gleefully building our own singing Tesla coils, and even though shuffling quietly across the carpet and sending a bright 10,000-volt arc from your fingertip to a napping family member can be a barrel of laughs, there are times where we most definitely do not find electrostatic discharge so amusing. The first of those, of course, is when we ARE the sleeping family member. Sheesh, what an insensitive prank!
But, a second scenario where we do not welcome the effect of high-voltage static discharge events is when we're designing high-speed communications circuits. Getting your Ethernet port zapped with a 10kV ESD is far from fun - especially for the Ethernet port. But, how do we help our circuits protect themselves? Ian Doyle of ProTek devices has some very helpful suggestions.
--Kevin Morris, Editor-in-Chief
Transmission data rates continue to grow and grow to meet consumer demands for multimedia rich content, such as streaming video. In turn, whether in the home or at the backend, Ethernet connectivity also continues its widespread use. As a result, and more than ever, electrostatic discharge (ESD) transient threats pose challenges to system designers to incorporate overvoltage protection that doesn’t impact performance.
Mentor Elevates PCB Game
For decades, the PCB design tools competition has been a board game. The scope of the problem was the design of a single PCB, and the competitors - Mentor, Cadence, Zuken, Altium/Protel, and the rest - all battled for supremacy with the scope, features, power, and cost of their solutions. The market for board tools actually got a little boring for years, with the major players competing mainly on cost and incumbency in the high-end (enterprise) level and in the low-cost (desktop) markets.
In the past few years, however, the battle has been heating up again. Demands on even “ordinary” board design have grown, as signal- and power-integrity became common problems with higher speed components, and IC packaging and mounting technology caused new challenges for layout. As a result, “desktop” tools began to inherit many of the features associated with “enterprise” tools. Enterprise design tool suites had to once again scramble to differentiate themselves and justify their significantly higher costs.
EE Journal Turns 11
We live and work in an amazing time. The global community of electronic engineers has created the greatest leap of technological progress in human history. In the almost fifty years that Moore's Law has existed, the number of transistors we can put on a single chip has risen from fifty to somewhere around twenty billion. That is a truly amazing achievement. And the power of that almost unimaginable feat has rippled and ripped through just about every aspect of our lives and our culture.
As the creators of that change, we have faced a unique challenge. While the rest of the world gets to enjoy the fact that electronic technology doubles in capability every two years, electronic engineers are faced with the harsh reality that we have to double our own productivity on that same schedule. Moore's Law becomes our mandate. I am aware of no other profession that requires a constant exponential improvement in worker productivity just to stay in the game.