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Importance of digital power to smaller chips

Posted: 18 Nov 2013     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Moore's Law  TSMC  20nm  Intel  digital power 

Moore's Law is bound to come to an end. The end of Moore's Law, where transistor density doubles approximately every two years, has been reportedly just a few years away for what seems like decades now.

TSMC's smallest architecture is a 20nm process, which it claims has "30 per cent higher speed, 1.9 times the density, or 25 per cent less power [compared with] its 28nm technology." Intel is claiming similar process geometries.

Shrinking nodes to this level creates several difficulties.

Digital power—from system level down to the chip
The importance and number of implementations of digital power have been growing steadily over the past decade and, when fully implemented, it allows users to dynamically adjust power rails to improve efficiency, quickly make changes during development to shorten design cycles, and receive real-time telemetry to let users accurately analyse their power infrastructure.

Typically, this has entailed a complete system level solution involving both hardware and software implementation. The companies that have made the transition to digital power have seen incredible benefits and realised a distinct advantage, but the majority of these companies have also had the infrastructure and resources to manage an implementation at the system level.

This type of implementation is not necessarily a trivial task without having proper information and partners to work with. Thus, the move to a fully-digital power system has been slower than the market had hoped.

While the majority of the vendors in the digital power market have tried to drive the value of a complete system solution, the fact is that it can also provide incredible value at just a single socket level. There are now numerous chips with extreme power requirements of 50A, 70A, or even over 100A at less than 1V, capable of handling significant transients and very tight tolerances on output.

Typically these challenging power requirements have resided at the processor market, but they are now migrating to other mainstream and application-specific ICs. These are perfect scenarios for a highly integrated digital POL.

Recommended, highly recommended or required
Recommended, highly recommended, and required are terms that are consistently thrown about in datasheets and marketing materials at all levels. Unfortunately, there isn't an IEEE definition for these terms, and it is up to the user to interpret the vendor's meaning.

For the most part, no one likes to use the word required in their technical documentation because that locks it in as part of the solution and could potentially be used against them by their competitors. For example, in the two scenarios above, it could be considered that digital power is recommended for a system and highly recommended for those chips with the extreme power requirements. Simple and straightforward, right?

Required is not a term that has been synonymous with digital power outside of an Intel serial VID (SVID). However, there has been an "under the radar" movement in the semiconductor industry to begin requiring a "dynamically adjustable" output voltage. I have personally watched this movement evolve, beginning with ASICs and now migrating to general release ICs. This has come as a surprise to most engineers, leaving them scrambling to find a solution for this new requirement.

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