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Archive for October, 2016

ARM TechCon is the Model for Future Successful Conferences

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

Gabe Moretti, Senior Editor

It has become abundantly clear that corporate and consortia sponsored conferences are gaining in both popularity and usefulness over generic conferences like DAC and DesignCon.  The reason, in my opinion, is how development has changed.  The industry has moved from the ASIC era, to the integrated system era.

Instead of designing an entire system, engineers now integrate subsystems.  This has been made possible with the introduction of IP licensing and the growth of the IP industry.  From a fledging and challenging design opportunity in the early 1990’s the use of IP is now a routine function that embraces both hardware and software modules.

Now both IP vendors and EDA tools providers can offer an ecosystem that is complete to their customers, both in capability and in range of functions.  The result is that conferences like ARM TechCon provide greater utility to working engineers, than the exhibit areas of DAC or DesignCon.

Only specialized conferences like DVCon held by Accellera on three continents continue to grow, because attendees benefit from the focused topics offered.  An engineer is concerned with issues covering the integration of design and verification functions finds interesting content in DVCon, while the same engineer would have to work from advanced conference documentation to create his or her own program at times dealing with conflicting schedules.

ARM holds its own specific program within DAC.  So conference attendees can take advantage of focused curricula.  But the problem is that other companies that enhance the specific environment by collaborating with ARM, for example, cannot provide focused support, since their attention must be directed toward all possibilities available within the conference.

A design engineer attending DAC finds a plethora of activities that are of no interest, or of marginal interest, and has a harder time moving within the conference just to follow what he or she wishes to see and hear.

Professionals dealing with layout and fabrication issues, for example, would find a conference organized by a fab company dealing with its own fabrication environment, challenges, and guidelines, more interesting that a series of academic papers presented at DAC.  I believe that DAC sponsor organizations need to take into consideration the changed reality of IC and system design, not just in the material presented, but in the format it is presented in.

The significant increase in size and popularity of ARC Day from Synopsys, for example, is another indication that such workshops are more valuable than generic conferences.  The same can be said for Accellera’s DVCon conferences now held in the US, Europe, India and China.  Although design and verification issue are global, they have different flavors in certain important parts of the planet.

ARM IP users find at ARM TechCon everything they need to successfully complete a design.  Both design, verification, software integration issues are covered with a depth and spread that is not available any place else.

Kilopass Unveiled Vertical Layered Thyristor (VLT) Technology for DRAMs

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

Gabe Moretti, Senior Editor

Kilopass Technology, Inc., is a leader in embedded non-volatile memory (NVM) intellectual property (IP).  Its patented technologies of one-time programmable (OTP) NVM solutions scale to advanced CMOS process geometries. They are portable to every major foundry and integrated device manufacturer (IDM), and meet market demands for increased integration, higher densities, lower cost, low-power management, better reliability and improved security.  The company has just announced a new device that potentially allows it to diversify into new markets.

According to Charlie Cheng, Kilopass’ CEO, VLT eliminates the need for DRAM refresh, is compatible with existing process technologies and offers significant other benefits including lower power, better area efficiency and compatibility.  When asked the reason for this additional corporate direction Charlie replied: “Kilopass built its reputation as the leader in one-time programmable memories,” says Charlie Cheng, Kilopass’ chief executive officer. “As the next step on our roadmap, we examined many possible devices that would not need new materials or complex process flows and found this vertical thyristor to be very compelling.  We look forward to commercializing VLT DRAM in early 2018.”

VLT Overview

Kilopass’ VLT is based on thyristor technology, a structure that is electrically equivalent to a cross-coupled pair of bipolar transistors that form a latch. The latch lends itself to memory applications since it stores values and, as opposed to current capacitor-based DRAM technology, does not require refresh. The thyristor was first invented in the 1950s and several attempts have been made to use it for the SRAM market without success.  Kilopass’ VLT is the realization of DRAM requirements based on implementing the thyristor structure vertically.

Since VLT does not require complex performance- and power-consuming refresh cycles, a VLT-based DDR4 DRAM lowers standby power by 10X when compared to conventional DRAM at the same process node. Furthermore, VLT requires fewer processing steps and is designed to be built using existing processing equipment, materials and flows.

The VLT bitcell operations and silicon measurement were completed in 2015 and shown to have excellent correlation to Kilopass’ proprietary ultra-fast TCAD simulator that is one hundred thousand times faster than a traditional TCAD simulator. The TCAD simulator enables Kilopass to predict the manufacturing windows for key process parameters, and optimize the design for any given manufacturing process.  A full macro level test chip was taped-out in May and initial silicon testing is underway.
Industry Perspective

The $50B DRAM market is being driven by strong demand in the server/cloud computing market as mobile phone and tablet market growth are slowing down and computing is moving increasingly to the cloud. The outlook for DRAM growth remains strong. In a report published in 2015, IC Insights forecasts DRAM CAGR of 9% over the period from 2014 – 2019. This growth rate shows DRAM growing faster than the total IC market.

Servers and server farms consume a tremendous amount of energy with memory being a major contributor. In an ideal world, the current generation of 20 nanometer (nm) DRAM would migrate to sub-20nm processes to deliver even lower power.

Current DRAM technology is based on the 1 transistor, 1 capacitor. The (1T1C) bitcell is difficult to scale since the smaller transistors exhibit more leakage and the smaller capacitor structure has less capacitance, resulting in the need to reduce the time between refresh intervals. Up to 20% of a 16Gb DDR DRAM’s raw bandwidth will be lost due to the increased frequency of refresh cycles, a negative for multi-core/multi-thread server CPUs that must squeeze out every bit of performance to remain competitive. The DRAM industry is in a quandary trying to increase memory performance while reducing power consumption, a tough challenge given the physics at play with the current 1T1C technology. In order to address the need for lower power consumption a new DRAM technology and architecture is needed.

Kilopass stated that its initial target markets include “PCs” and servers. I am of the old school and associate the term “PC” to personal computers.  But Kilopass uses the term to mean Portable Computing Devices so it is talking about a different market.  Kilopass expects to have test silicon by early 2017 that will confirm performance of the new VLT DRAM technology and manufacturability.   Kilopass has two primary reasons to announce the new technology over one year in advance of product delivery.  First the company is in the IP business, so it is giving itself time to look for licensees.  Secondly it thinks that the DRAM market has been stuck at 20nm. Adoption of new technology takes time, though VLT has been shown to be manufacturable. This is the right time to alert the market that there are alternative solutions, allowing time for investigation of this new technology.   Market penetration of new technology is not always assured.  Wide acceptance almost always requires a second source, especially with something so new as the VLT device.  Memories play a critical role cloud computing but a far smaller one in PC since power consumption in PC is not a widespread issue.

Interview with Pim Tuyls, President and CEO of Intrinsic-ID

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016

Gabe Moretti, Senior Editor

After the article on security published last week, I continued the conversation with more corporations.  The Apple vs. FBI case showed that the stakes are high and the debate is heated.  Privacy is important, not only for guarding sensitive information but for also ensuring functionality in our digital world.

I asked Pim Tuyls his impressions on security in electronics systems.


“Often, privacy is equated with security. However, ‘integrity’, is often the more important issue. This is especially true with the Internet of Things (IoT) and autonomous systems, which rely on the inputs they receive to operate effectively.    If these inputs are not secure, how can they be trusted?  Researchers have already tricked sensors of semi-autonomous cars with imaginary objects on the road, triggering emergency braking actions.  Counterfeit sensors are already on the market.

Engineers have built in redundancy and ‘common-sense’ rules to help ensure input integrity. However, such mechanisms were built primarily for reliability, not for security. So something else is needed. Looking at the data itself is not enough. Integrity needs to be built into sensors and, more generally, all end-points.”

Chip Design: Are there ways you think could be effective in increasing security?


“One way to do this is to append a Message Authentication Code (MAC) to each piece of data. This is essentially a short piece of information that authenticates a message or confirms that the message came from the claimed sender (its authenticity) and has not been changed in transit (its integrity). To protect against replay attacks the message is augmented with a timestamp or counter before the MAC is calculated.  Another approach to implement a MAC is based on hash functions (HMAC or Hash-based message authentication code). Hash functions such as the SHA-2 family are well-known and widely supported cryptographic primitives with efficient and compact implementation.”

Chip Design: These approaches sound easy but there are reasons they are not widely adopted?


“First, even though an algorithm like HMAC is efficient and compact, it may still be too high of a burden on the tiny microcontrollers and sensors that are the nerves of a complex system.  Authenticating every piece of data naturally takes up resources such as processing, memory and power.  In some cases, like in-vitro medical sensors, any reduction in battery life is not acceptable. Tiny sensor modules often do not have any processing capabilities. In automotive, due to the sheer number of sensors and controllers, costs cannot be increased.”

Chip Design: It is true that many IoT devices are very cost sensitive, I said, however, over recent years there is an increasing use of more powerful, 32-bit, often ARM- based microcontrollers. Many of these now come with basic security features like crypto accelerators and memory management. So some of the issues that prevent adoption of security are quickly being eroded.

Pim continued:

“A second obstacle relates to the complex logistics of configuring such a system. HMAC relies on a secret key that is shared between the sensor and the host.  Ensuring that each sensor has a unique key and that the key is kept secret via a centralized approach creates a single point of failure and introduces large liabilities for the party that manages the keys.”

Chip Design: What could be a cost-effective solution?

Pim concluded:

“A new solution to all these issues is based on SRAM Physical Unclonable Functions (PUFs). An SRAM PUF can reliably extract a unique key from a standard SRAM circuit on a standard microcontroller or smart sensor. The key is determined by tiny manufacturing differences unique to each chip. There is no central point of failure and no liability for key loss at the manufacturer.  Furthermore, as nothing is programmed into the chip, the key cannot even be extracted through reverse engineering or other chip-level attacks.

Of course adapting a new security paradigm is not something that should be done overnight. OEMs and their suppliers are rightly taking a cautious approach. After all, the vehicle that is now being designed will still be on the road in 25 years. For industrial and medical systems, the lifecycle of a product may even be longer.

Still, with technologies like SRAM PUF the ingredients are in place to introduce the next level of security and integrity, and pave the road for fully autonomous systems. Using such technologies will not only help to enhance privacy but will also ensure a higher level of information integrity.”

This brought me back to the article where a solution using PUF was mentioned.