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Semico Outlook 2010: Infrastructure is the Key

One of the panels at the Semico Outlook Conference (March 2, 2010) focused on issues concerning the communications infrastructure. Some common themes were the carriers meeting the challenge of return on investment (ROI), meeting the growing demand for band width, and reducing power consumption.

The mainstream press and popular culture tend to focus on the various gizmos people around the world are clamoring for, such as smart phones, eReaders, notebooks, and other personal handheld electronics. Networking homes and businesses are hot topics. And of course people keep talking about “cloud computing,” but many are not aware that these are actually large data centers. In order for all of these things to connect, work and satisfy consumers, the communications infrastructure is necessary.

The panel was moderated by Hugh Durdan, COO of eSilicon. Speakers were Bradley Howe, (VP IC Engineering/Altera), Young Sohn (Pres. & CEO/Inphi) and Lisa Su (Sr VP &GM/Freescale).

Durdan kicked off the panel pointing out that social networking is putting pressure on communications networks. He cited a recent example of AT&T suspending sales of iPhones because of lack of BW.

Lisa Su discussed the evolving wireless standards. The 3G standard and others “beyond 3G”, the 3G+ will achieve 21% penetration among wireless subscribers in 2010. This will continue to grow accounting for 43% by 2014. LTE and WiMAX continue to roll out. However, the carriers find themselves in a conundrum between this surging demand and the economics of deploying all of this advanced technology.

According to Su, common platforms are a way to meet the needs of wireless base station carriers. These provide a way to upgrade from 3G to 4G. It provides a path from single to multi-carrier solutions. It also allows SW and HW reuse.

Freescale’s silicon solution includes multi-core MPUs (Power Architecture) and multi-core DSPs. The multi-core MPUs also include on-chip accelerators. The goal is to optimize performance and power efficiency while processing higher BW. According to Su, the result is smaller equipment footprint and more services on a single card/chassis. Freescale’s MPU is on 45nm SOI for lower leakage power. All of this leads to lower cost and power consumption.

Young Sohn of Inphi pointed out how cloud computing is a trend that is taking us from distributed computing back to centralized computing. Currently about 90% of the internet traffic is going through Inphi interface chips. He expects that 25% of all IT incremental spending in 2010 will be for cloud computing.

Sohn insisted that the semiconductor industry needs to focus on energy efficiency, performance, security and reliability. What must be kept in mind is the user experience. Currently the network infrastructure is playing catch up, the BW is being challenged. The servers are moving to multi-core, multi-socket and virtualization.

In data center servers the power consumption is not so much from the MPUs as the memory. The amount of memory per server is increasing as well as the speed. Inphi has introduced a control chip that allows multiple CPU’s to share DRAM, thereby reducing the amount of DRAM resulting in lower power consumption. Another solution in the data centers to reduce latency as well as power consumption is SSD controllers.

Bradley Howe of Altera gave a keynote prior to the panel and then joined in. Howe’s message was that “power is everything.” As an industry, semiconductors are moving to smaller geometries and adding more transistors, but the voltage is not following at the same rate.

Howe said that System on Package can increase the number of components per sq mm. However, the industry has not invested enough in packaging technology.

According to Howe, there are massive cost pressures on all fronts. R&D costs for semiconductor development keep growing. The cost of 32nm is expected to be 2x that of 65nm.

The carriers are also under cost pressures. The massive explosion in BW is driven by mobility. Voice gives way to data which in turn is giving way to video. The growth is exponential. Howe points out that there is a problem on the system side. The revenues for the carriers are flat. However, there is the growing demand for them to expand and upgrade.

“There is a need to aggressively enable new infrastructure capabilities in an environment of cost pressures and diminishing ROI,” stated Howe.

In summary, the growth of the infrastructure is essential to support the exponential demand of consumers. However, the carriers need both the advanced technologies and to lower their cost. This is the cost of the equipment but also operating expenses which include power consumption. Semiconductor vendors are addressing the issues of lower equipment cost with improving performance and also lower power.

Tony Massimini, Chief of Technology

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