Panel calls for chip standards

Software and standards are critical to the development of microprocessors as they become more pervasive and powerful, panelists said at a roundtable session here at the Embedded Processor Forum on Tuesday evening.

Microprocessor technology will be used widely in a multitude of devices, said panelist John Mashey, chief scientist at Sensei Partners LLC and a founder of the MIPS architecture. Mashey asked the audience to consider the current ratio of chips to people and suggested that by "around 2010, we'll have 1,000 [chips] apiece," for each individual. Chips are beginning to show up in everything from "smart" ski boots to tennis rackets and cat doors, Mashey said.

"What that says to me is there's going to be a lot of innovation over the next 10 years," Mashey said.

Panelist Tom Riordan, vice president of the MIPS processor division at PMC-Sierra and a founder of MIPS Technologies Inc., stressed that software and standards are critical to the development of chip technologies. Adherence to standards are required to handle the volume of data processing needed to process enterprise software, Riordan said.

Another panelist, Jim Keller, director of chip architecture at Broadcom Corp.'s broadband processor unit and also a founder of MIPS Technologies, touted developments in transistors, memory, and single-chip multiprocessing.

"We're going to build really interesting single-chip microprocessors like the Broadcom 150," Keller said.

Despite the rosy outlook for the evolution and proliferation of microprocessor technology, there are issues to be dealt with by chip designers, panelists noted.

"I think that currently, the big thing for us is balancing lower power and high performance," said Rich Witek, who has served in various functions ranging from co-architect of the Alpha architecture to corporate fellow at AMD.

Memory is also a concern, as are issues such as technology integration and accommodating high chip densities, Witek noted. "There isn't one system that's right for everybody, so you have to figure out what your customers want," he said. "The other thing is security is going to come [into play] in a big way."

But devices can expect to be fitted with gigahertz-level performance, 100MB of RAM, and 100MB of Flash memory, said Witek. "These are all going to be in a handheld unit that runs for a few days and then you toss it into the cradle," he said.

"The FPGA [field programmable gate array] enables a really high coupling between the processor core and the custom peripherals," commented Panelist John Birkner, CTO of QuickLogic and co-inventor of programmable logic arrays. "The question I would pose is how tight should that coupling be?"

Panelist Tim Olsen, a chip architecture and software official at Intrinsity and a co-architect of the AMD 2900 processor family, said that with embedded systems, general purpose processors are being tied to digital signal processors.

"The trend that we're seeing now at Intrinsity is migration of vector and even matrix operations that are commonplace in things like wireless," Olsen said.

He added that chip frequencies keep going up. "In 10 years, John's smart chip cat door processor is going to run at 100GHz," Olsen said.

Riordan suggested a unification of the MIPS and ARM architectures would enable companies to develop a better technology to compete against "the real enemy," Intel's x86 architecture.

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