Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Inside the first 60 GHz CMOS radios

Here's a sneak peak under the hood of what the first commercial 60 GHz radios aimed for consumer apps might look like, based on a conversation yesterday with Bob Brodersen, a pioneer in CMOS radio and chairman of startup SiBeam, Inc. :

Sampling probably in late 2007 will be a device capable of sending uncompressed high def video between a set-top box and a TV at data rates up to 5 Gbits/second. It will be packaged in a roughly one-inch square module designed to accommodate up to 30 adaptive directional antennas. It could draw up to 5W and cost a slight premium over components for a wired HDMI link. Some of the early research chips from UC Berkeley (pictured) used waveguides on silicon to keep the millimeter signals on track.

The value proposition: It could provide lower cost and higher quality than using ultrawideband. That’s because a 200-400 Mbit/s UWB link would require an extra compression step meaning more codecs, more DRAM, more data loss and latency.

Detractors say it will take two years before there are multiple sources of 60 GHz radios with demonstrated interoperability. Backers say they are designing the most integrated and lowest cost phased array devices anyone has ever attempted in CMOS.

Will this be the multimedia home networking nirvana that supplants 1394, ultrawideband and 802.11n? Stay tuned. --rbm

60 GHz crowd pushes into the living room

Move over ultrawideband, six top consumer electronics companies are defining a 60GHz radio technology to bring high definition media to the home network.

LG, Matsushita, NEC, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba announced today they have formed WirelessHD. The group will deliver early next year a specification for multi-Gbit/second home networking at a range up to 10 meters and with latencies of 5-15ms. WirelessHD.

Does this mean the PC-centric wireless USB will get squeezed between the mobile Bluetooth juggernaut (see below) and this high-end consumer play? I aim to speak with some key principals and competitors later today about this and other questions. Stay tuned.-–rbm.

Monday, October 30, 2006

We will all look like this

That’s my conclusion from the aggressive prediction posted by IMS Research today that Bluetooth could ship in as many as 500 million systems this year and as many as 1.5 billion by 2010. The vast majority of those links will be used to connect cellphones with wireless headsets, IMS said, giving us that clipped ear look made famous in Star Trek.

The big question is whether this juggernaut will make Bluetooth the PAN of choice in a highly fragmented field of short-range interconnects I have discussed below. Alternatively, PCs, printers and digital cameras may define the PAN with the much faster wireless USB chips making their way into the market this year.

Check out the full story on eet.com and let me know what you think, and what you are designing in. --rbm

Friday, October 27, 2006

Fibre Channel slow amid 4Gbit ramp

In the end, all the talk about data center convergence really amounts to a divergence and fragmentation of networks and interconnects.

For examples of this fact, look at yesterday's lackluster quarterly results from Fibre Channel leader Emulex. The company announced two new divisions to diversify into SATA, SAS, iSCSI and Ethernet because--even amid a fast transition to 4Gbit FC--the FC market is fairly stagnant and plenty of other technologies are coming on strong. Re-positioning itself for the more diverse world, Emulex is sprucing up its logo as well as its product portfolio and R&D.

Look for a full story shortly at eet.com today. --rbm

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

AMD fuses graphics and x86

Upon formally completing its merger with ATI this morning, AMD announced its Fusion program, a plan to deliver starting in late 2008 a range of combined CPU and graphics processors for everything from consumer systems for emerging markets to desktops, laptops and servers. An AMD release suggested the company will tap both its proprietary coherent HyperTransport and PCI Express to link the chips to co-processors and other devices.

Intel tried and failed to merge the x86 and graphics for low cost consumer PCs with its Timna years ago. Via had minimal success with its integrated x86 CPUs.

AMD appears to have broader market targets with Fusion than either rival. But all those targets--high end gaming, low end consumer and technical computing-- are pretty much niche markets in computing.

So my question, dear blog commentors, is can AMD make money on welding together graphics and x86 multi-core processors? I'd love to hear your opinions backed up with lively detail! --rbm

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

HT confab needs all agendas

The annual HyperTransport Technology Developers Conference kicks off Thursday, October 26, 2006, at the Santa Clara Marriott Hotel in Santa Clara, Calif. My question: can this event embrace both the association's agenda and the HT agenda of Advanced Micro Devices for OEMs and developers who want to know about both.

The association said the event will include presentations by member companies focused on a variety of HyperTransport 3.0 and HTX. No word on AMD's separate Torrenza program to license coherent HT for linking to co-processors and more. Hmmmmm?

What do you want to hear about at the HT confab? Where does HT need to go in your view, dear posters?

I am away in New York this week, so I would love comments from those of you who attend about what you liked, what you learned and what you felt was missing.--rbm

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Startup keeps IB inside the box

Startup Panta Systems officially debuts its high performance server today, flexing a muscular I/O system with many as six 10Gbit/second Infiniband ports on every four-socket Opteron card. (Go to eet.com and search on “Panta” for the story.) Panta is a big believer in IB, even extending it down to its modular in-chassis storage array at 800Mbits/s.

But note that this startup did not want to take the risk that users are ready to run IB around their data centers. The Infiniband goodies stay inside the box and Ethernet is the external conduit. Interesting reality check on so-called data center convergence. --rbm

Friday, October 20, 2006

A burning question for the data center

OK, we have all heard that the data center is going to converge on accelerated Ethernet with Remote Direct Memory Access or on Infiniband that already has RDMA. Clearly, this has not happened and still seems a far away dream given the relatively slow uptake and expense of both technologies at 10Gbits and up.

The real convergence we have seen so far is in a single software stack for both networks under the Open Fabrics Alliance. So--and this is your weekend homework, dear interconnect mavens--what do you suppose the next practical step in this data center convergence will be?

Think on it and keep checking back here for the answer coming in less than a month! --rbm

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Innovate? Great, tell me how

Does your company have a defined process for fostering innovation? If so, let me know about it by posting a comment here or emailing me at rbmerrit@cmp.com.

The fact is, most electronics companies pay lip service to innovation, but few have any defined process for making sure it happens inside their organizations. That’s the view of Curtis Carlson (pictured), president and chief executive of SRI International who wrote a book on the topic and spoke about it at a San Jose conference this week.

Carlson makes a simple, powerful point that left my jaw hanging. What could be more important to a technology company—especially one here in the seat of Silicon Valley, than having a process designed to foster and capture innovation?

OK, let’s prove Carlson wrong. Tell me about the process at your shop. –rbm

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Joy takes a jab at computer industry

“We have a strange situation where we are delivering a new kind of computing. It’s based on $50 million worth of systems that fill whole rooms, but there are no vendors that offer these systems. Companies like Google have to build it by themselves.”

That was one of the observations of Bill Joy, former chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, speaking at the Emerging Ventures conference in San Jose Tuesday.

Joy now focuses on semiconductors and green tech as a venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers. At the conference, he was asked to share his reflections on computing today and took issue with the high-performance computing sector.

“We are scotch taping together suboptimal machines, and its not acceptable,” Joy said. “Unix is not designed to be an OS when there are 100,000 copies. CPUs and north bridge chips are not designed for that either.

“It suggests the industry needs a fix, but I don’t’ know what it is. There is an opportunity for some great company there,” Joy said.

The fact that a handful of companies such as Google have built their own large parallel systems is a huge advantage, but “it’s something most people can’t do,” he added.

The cerebral Joy probably wasn't aware his former employer announced Project Blackbox the day before. The data-center-in-a-box effort (pictured) is aimed to help hyper-growth Web companies gear up fast. Such drastic steps appear more aimed to garner press than truly solve the problem Joy highlighted.

Separately, I bumped into Sun architect Marc Tremblay during a morning break. He said Sun’s Rock processor is on target to tapeout by the end of the year. Sun has some new multi-core tools it will roll out in tandem with Rock, he added. Stay tuned! –rbm

"EtherRAM" speeds data center I/O

Startup Gear6 emerges from stealth mode today [Oct 16] with a novel concept for boosting performance in the data center with rackable RAM cache systems that sit on an Ethernet network. The CacheFx appliance creates a scalable pool of shared semiconductor memory that fills a gap between an individual server’s main memory and the data center’s storage-area network. Future products will sit on Fibre Channel and iSCSI networks.

Even over an Ethernet link, access time for the cache appliance is 10 to 50 times faster than getting data from a storage network, the company claims.

A principal engineer from Google shared the stage at the Intel Developer Forum in September with Intel Corp. CTO Justin Rattner, noting the need for something to help fill that performance gap.

The startup’s secret sauce is in its software that makes the systems easy to use. Paving a road to what could be an eventual acquisition, Gear6 has already forged partnerships with Sun Microsystems and Network Appliance to ensure their systems interoperate with the CacheFx boxes. --rbm

Monday, October 16, 2006

The next hard(ware) step for DRM

Today’s digital rights management systems are still fairly crude, according to Brad Hunt, chief technology officer of the Motion Picture Association of America, speaking at last week’s Digital Home Developers Conference in San Jose. That’s because they protect premium content by managing whether or not you can make a copy of it. Tomorrow’s DRMs will be smarter, letting users register the set of devices they own that live on their home network so that paid-for content can be shared among them.

Hunt and others rallied around so-called link protection technologies such as DTCP-IP and Windows Media DRM for Network Devices that protect and manage copies today via software. Upcoming DRM interfaces like the Secure Video Processor work could open up the door to sharing content on across a user’s devices thanks to hardware-backed techniques.

“We are just starting to see chip sets for this emerge,” said Hunt. “We want to move from copy management to license management. We think that’s the future of content distribution,” he added. --rbm

Thursday, October 12, 2006

SI evangelist on a mission

Not sure about using VHDL-AMS? Bill Hargin, a hard charging Mentor Graphics signal integrity marketing manager, may have you in his sights.

I had a latte and chat with Bill (pictured) on his latest pass through San Jose. He has been selling big chip makers such as Intel and Texas Instruments as well as small design and training companies about the advantages of VHDL-AMS which is at the heart of Mentor’s SI tools. If he is successful in his effort to build an eco-system around the technology, it could help set it as a standard for the advanced IBIS modeling specification in the works.

“We just need to get more models out there,” Bill said.

The former mechanical engineer has a solid appreciation for today’s SI issues as well as a bent for metaphors. Here are two quick examples:

The problems in high-speed SI today are like those of a house with old plumbing: Turn a faucet off quickly and a “water hammer” effect rattles the pipes, just like reflections in a GHz transmission line, Bill says. I get the picture.

Sometimes the problems lead not just to metaphors but new products. Today’s serdes are much more complex than yesterday’s parallel interconnects because they have so many knobs and settings for effects such as pre-emphasis and equalization, Bill notes. It’s like the cockpit of a 747 compared to the driver’s seat of a Ford pickup.

So Mentor is developing a user interface to make it easy to fly those serdes when they are embedded in an Altera Stratix FPGA. The tool is about 80 percent ready for prime time and could be out in the next few months, Bill says. --rbm

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

OEMs craft their own storage CPUs

Brocade and Cisco have developed their own storage processors to handle virtualization on their Fibre Channel switches. At least that’s what I heard today from Mukund Chavan, a chief hardware architect at Emulex Corp., who considers the OEM in-house ASICs to be among his chief competitors. It’s not surprising, because years ago Cisco helped pioneer the field of network processors with some of its own in-house designs even though a small hoard of net CPU startups were begging for Cisco sockets.

Despite the OEM ASICs, Chavan believes there will still be a healthy market for merchant storage processors among the top tier storage array and switch vendors such as EMC, IBM and others. He detailed at the Fall Processor Forum today the architecture of his AV150 which began as a design from startup Aarohi Communications, acquired by Emulex in April.

If you know anything about these Brocade and Cisco chips please post a comment or drop me a line at rbmerrit@cmp.com. I may want to profile the chips and the design teams behind them on EE Times.

Wanted: platform power standards

I think the computer industry needs a more comprehensive set of power efficiency standards.

At the Fall Processor Forum yesterday both Intel and IBM talked about their recent adoption of microcontrollers to monitor and control the power, heat, frequency and voltage of a CPU. Intel uses the Platform Environment Control Interface to link to chips that handle some of those functions.

IBM sketched out the Power6, its first CPU use of an external management controller and called for a discussion about how to create an approach that would let users set power efficiency policies based on their workloads.

My impression is both companies are going down the right road in parallel. I think at some point they will realize, along with other competitors, there could be some valuable cooperation in setting a baseline of standards for this new power efficient era. --rbm

Monday, October 09, 2006

More PANdemonium

Lots of news bits about short-range wireless technologies flying around this morning.

The bad news is Aura Communications apparently closed its doors quietly back in May, although one source says its magnetic induction technology suitable for music streaming was acquired by someone. Dear blog readers, if you know more about this please tack up a comment or email me at rbmerrit@cmp.com

On the good news front, the IEEE announced today a draft standard for a Chirp Spread Spectrum (CSS) physical layer dubbed 802.15.4a. “The new standard targets applications such as Real Time Location Systems, industrial control, sensor networking and medical devices,” according to a release from Nanotron Technologies GmbH (Berlin) which backed the effort.

Nanotron makes pre-standard chips today that offer data rates of up to 2 Mbps at 10mW over 900 meters (outdoors) and 60 meters (indoors) without an external power amplifier. The final standard is expected to be published in March 2007, about the time compliant products hit.

It will be interesting to see how CSS competes with existing efforts like Bluetooth and Zigbee as well as last week’s new low-power PAN entrant from Nokia, Wibree (see posts below). In his Nearpoints blog this week, consultant Craig Mathias will say both Bluetooth and Wibree are geared “for infrequent, low-duty-cycle transfers, so power consumption alone doesn’t really make me want to run out and buy WiBree.”

Bluetooth backers will design dual-mode BT/Wibree chips as well as standalone Wibree chips for low cost devices like watches and toys, so some of the needed consolidation of PANs appears built into the concept. Thank God! –rbm

Friday, October 06, 2006

One more voice on Wibree

Analyst Craig Mathias of Farpoint Group pinged me from his travels in Europe to say the Wibreee low-power wireless technology announced by Nokia on Monday to say “I don’t think Wibree will have much impact in the general market.”

He says it is not directly competitive with Bluetooth which is mainly focused on headsets or Zigbee, aimed at industrial nets. While Wibree does sport a Mbit/second data rates at power levels supposedly a fraction of those of Bluetooth, Mathias suspects the Bluetooth community will respond with its own low-power options.

Maybe, or maybe Wibree backers such as Broadcom and CSR will just do as Nokia suggests by making Wibree a low-power model on their cellphone Bluetooth chips and making simple Wibree-only chips to attack a new opportunity in watches, toys and other cost-constrained gadgets Nokia hopes to link to with this new wireless technology. --rbm

Thursday, October 05, 2006

ARM wrestles for cellular security role

ARM wants to open up the applications programming interface for its TrustZone extensions to its ARM core in an effort to set a standard in cellphone handset security. The effort came to light yesterday at a panel discussion I chaired at the ARM Developers Conference in Santa Clara, Calif.

At a cocktail reception afterwards, ARM chief executive Warren East told me the company’s cores are in 90 percent of all cellphones and 70 percent of digital cameras. That makes the company with only a few hundred million in annual revenues a major force in mobile.

But it’s far from the only voice. The Trusted Computing Group recently finished a mobile security spec chaired by Nokia. It uses a version of the group’s Trusted Platform Module. Other groups addressing some aspects of mobile security include the Open Mobile Alliance, the Java Community Process, the Open Mobile Terminal Platform and STIP.

Reps from Broadcom and Motorola who attended a private ARM meeting on the API effort expressed hopes for one overarching mobile security standard. But a Freescale security architect took a wait-and-see attitude, as do I. –rbm

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Out of the PAN and into the…?

Thanks and a hat tip to John Barr, a senior technologist tracking standards at Motorola, for chiming in about Nokia’s new Wibree initiative. It’s not really a personal area network, but more of a point-to-point link like wireless USB, and it lacks the rich profiles Bluetooth has worked for years to develop, notes Barr who is a strong advocate for Bluetooth.

Will Wibree make it into the PC? Have to wait and see. So far Intel declines to comment about the new technology—not a good sign for Nokia. –rbm

FPGAs make a bigger play in the x86

Interesting to watch how FPGA makers such as Altera and Xilinx are getting more cozy with the x86 computing world these days.

I had a chance to chat (remotely) with Xilinx CTO Ivo Bolsens who made a rare appearance at the Intel Developer Forum last week. Among others news bits, both Altera and Xilinx announced they had licensed Intel’s front-side bus (FSB) so they can build products linking to it.

Once upon a time, Intel kept an iron grip on its CPU bus technology, licensing only a very few chip set makers to keep the PC ecosystem thriving. But it’s a different day with Advanced Micro Devices putting on a full court press to get chipmakers hopping on its coherent HyperTransport (cHT) bus, although it sounds to me like clear terms for a cHT license are still being hammered out.

In the short term, expect to see more FPGAs in high performance computers for specialty applications. Cray has already given the green light to this idea for systems to ship in 2007, using FPGAs from DRC Computer Corp.

As the era of multi-core computing matures FPGAs and a host of other co-processors will become ever more strategic. Watch this space. --rbm

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Another flash in the PAN

Nokia announced today a new short-range wireless technology called Wibree that is similar to Bluetooth but uses a fraction of the power. Nokia says it is aimed at connecting PCs and phones to watches, toys and other low-cost gadgets that run on button cells.

It’s getting crowded in the personal area network with Bluetooth, various flavors of ultrawideband including wireless USB pushed hard by Intel, near-field communications pushed hard by Philips, peer-to-peer and mesh variations of Wi-Fi and combinations like Bluetooth over UWB. Dell has been calling for a shakeout in the PAN for sometime now, calling the sector "a mess."

I have been saying since late 2004 there are too many radios trying to crowd into the phone from Bluetooth to RFID and Zigbee. It's ironic then that handset giant Nokia launches one more. The fact that Intel and Microsoft are not part of Wibree indicates it may be hard getting support for it built into the PC.

No doubt wireless is the long-term future of communications. And clearly the short term future is all about further fragmentation and consolidation of the technologies. Let the accordion play!

PS: You can go to eet.com and search for "PAN" to find some stories with good perspective on these issues--rbm

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Dear Abby of SI

Eric Bogatin is hanging out a virtual shingle at DoctorIsIn@BeTheSignal.com. The specialist in signal integrity training is taking your questions and posting answers at the bottom of his new monthly column on the Altera Web site. Eric will also use the Q&As in future versions of his columns for Printed Circuit Design and Manufacture Magazine. Those columns are now nicely indexed on his own Web site.

There are some decent how-to tips at both locations. The new Altera column talks about using guard traces to reduce noise by a factor of five in mixed signal applications where 100dB isolation is important.

As we move deeper into the GigaHertz Era were going to need all the help we can get. So I may link to a juicy tip from time to time. --rbm