As processors grow smaller, chip designers are hammering away at power consumption while examining power-thrifty methods of increasing performance, according to presentations at this week's International Solid State Circuits Conference (ISSCC). Microprocessor companies such as Intel, IBM, Sun, and Sony dispatched representatives to this technical conference to discuss their latest products and offer suggestions for the future. Chip performance has improved substantially in just a few years, but chip makers are increasingly worried about the large amounts of power required to maintain high levels of performance in ever-decreasing packages. Intel and IBM presented technical papers outlining their newest desktop processors built on 90nm process technology. The current shift from 130nm to 90nm process technology has raised concerns about current leakage, and the topic was a significant part of both companies' presentations. As power lines within chips decrease in size, more electrons can penetrate the thin walls and leak out of the processor as heat. Excessive heat can damage a system, and hotter chips need more expensive cooling equipment to maintain performance. About 30 percent of the total power consumed by Intel's newest Pentium 4 processor is wasted as current leakage, said Joseph Schutz, a VP in Intel's manufacturing group. This was within the power budget outlined by Intel designers for leakage, but without careful attention to the problem, the current leakage could have been much worse, he said. IBM's 2.5GHz PowerPC 970FX will dissipate about 50W of power during typical use, down from 66W consumed by its PowerPC 970 predecessor at a lower clock speed, said Norman Rohrer, senior technical staff member at IBM. IBM's chip will launch soon in an Apple's XServe system, and is expected to also power a new version of Apple's PowerMac desktop. Power consumption was also a concern for designers of IBM's Power 5 chip. That server processor consumes 160W of power at 1.8GHz, and while power consumption is less of a problem in the server world, IBM still implemented several architectural changes in order to save as much power as possible, said Joachim Clabes, design team leader for the Power 5. IBM will release servers built with the dual-core Power 5 processor later this year. The new chips will offer 20 to 40 per cent improvements in performance over the older Power 4 generation due in part to improved multi-threading technology, Clabes said. Fresh off a large product launch last week, Sun presented details on two chips that are slated for future products. The company has developed a dual-core UltraSPARC processor for dense servers that will consume 23 watts of power at 1.2GHz, the first of which was launched last week. The new dual-core chip will allow Sun to offer blade and small rack servers with high performing 64-bit chips and Sun's Solaris operating system. The company has also built samples of a 90nm UltraSPARC that will use a 4MB L2 cache to boost performance. Other events included Sony's presentation of a paper on its work reducing frequency and power consumption in system designs for handheld devices, and Xelerated's discussion of a network processor capable of up to 40GB per second of throughput.
Chip designers power down latest creations
As processors grow smaller, chip designers are hammering away power consumption while examining methods of increasing performance.