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Editors list ups, downs at ISSCC

Posted: 19 Feb 2010     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:power management  nanotechnology  software  ISSCC show 

The focus on power management, lack of papers on nanotechnology and software and slow recovery of attendance were among the surprises for EE Times editors at the 2010 International Solid State Circuits Conference (ISSCC).

1. Power everywhere
The awareness of the need to squeeze every excess drop of current out of a design was clear in everything from processors to transceivers to medical implants. We saw more papers than ever put power figures prominently in their titles.

Clearly, MIPS and megahertz have given way to milliwatts and picojoules as the new figures of merit. Power is the new performance.

We thought it was especially interesting to see multiple papers on energy harvesting circuits. And one presentation even talked about work on a nanowatt sensor node.

2. Missing software
Given power has become critical, we were surprised to see no sessions included software as part of a holistic approach to design. The enabling role software has in achieving low power goals—with hooks down to the transistor level—makes software and hardware inseparable.

The slow return of attendees to ISSCC was also a surprise. Attendance fell 30 per cent in 2009 to just more than 2,300 after hitting 3,450 attendees in 2008. This year it bounced back, but only by 12 per cent to about 2,700.

3. Disappointing turnout
Given the rosy expectations for semiconductors in 2010, we thought it would have bounced back more. Still, the crowds were strong, but with fewer engaging questions and panel-audience interactions than we have come to expect.

That said, ISSCC remains a favourite live social networking site for chip designers. In this era of virtual conferences and globally distributed design teams, the ISSCC coffee breaks and evening receptions were crowded with engineers from colleges and companies large and small.

Grad students with their first chip under their belts and master designers who were decade-long veterans of the show shared war stories and technical tips. And there wasn't an email lounge in sight.

4. Tiny nano presence
We were also surprised by the lack of papers on nanotechnology, especially given the fact the topic was the subject of one of the event keynotes. Laura Fujino, one of the event organisers, shared her thoughts in an email.

"My expectation is that nanotechnology's success is going to depend on robust relatively high current interfaces to the outside world which will be logically provided by conventional silicon IC technology," wrote Fujino.

Fujino cited the comment of James Meindl in his plenary paper "that however promising some of the nanotechnologies are—particularly graphene nanoribbons—we have yet to see the appearance of viable transistors and integrated circuits," she wrote. "However, there is increasing evidence of the existence of ribbon based field-effect transistors," she added.

5. Disruptive history
ISSCC co-organiser Kenneth C. Smith raised our eyebrows, recounting the disruptive history of the event that started in 1952—in violation of U.S. antitrust laws. At the time, the development of transistors and solid-state circuits had strong military backing, through companies such as Raytheon, so the government didn't want open discussion of the technology.

"So, designers started to collude with each other," he said, and ISSCC was born.

6. IBM back in NPUs
Among papers, IBM's description of a new network/server processor was one of the more surprising. It's all-too-rare these days for a major corporation to announce a new processor first at ISSCC. Seeing IBM re-enter a market it exited years ago was all the more surprising.

Big blue claims it has a new twist with a chip that aims to bridge the space between servers and network processing units (NPUs). Clearly there are more shoes to fall on this gambit.

- Patrick Mannion, Rick Merritt
EE Times





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