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Mobility has changed the chip industry already, but the rise of the iPhone and devices such as e-readers are only the beginning. If we’re going to create an Internet of things that connects back to a cloud powered by millions of servers, the chip world will have to change drastically to reduce power consumption, shrink in size and embrace new architectures. Fortunately these things are already happening, and here are three startups that showcase the big upcoming shifts.
SuVolta doesn’t want to design chips, it wants to make the process that fabrication plants will use to build the devices. Its technology cuts the energy used in chips in half, and requires a fairly simple tweak of the chemicals layered onto the chip during the manufacturing process. The resulting chips made using SuVolta’s process are just as fast but consume about half the power.
This power reduction is cool, but it’s not the main reason why SuVolta’s on this list. SuVolta tweaks both the manufacturing process and the circuit design. But the process works best for systems on a chip, as opposed to stand alone processors. A System on a chip (SoC) is when multiple types of processors are placed on a single chip as an integrated package.
SoCs are common in the mobile world because they are a way to cram more functionality into a smaller package and they consume less power. SuVolta’s President and CEO Bruce McWilliams, believes SoCs will be the way of the future for how most chips are built.
Ambiq is commercializing technology out of the University of Michigan to build a real-time clock designed for sensors. The clock consumes less power, but also takes over functions that currently involve other chips in order to reduce the power usage of the sensor even further (yup, it’s like an SoC microcontroller). Scott Hanson, the CEO and co-founder of Ambiq explains that today’s sensors usually contain a microcontroller, a clock that puts the chip to sleep and wakes it as necessary, a power supply, a sensor of some sort (typically a MEMs device) and a radio.
But Ambiq combines the clock and the microcontroller so the chip requires less power and takes up less space. Some proposed uses of the chip include implanting it inside the human body, or a chip that can run on tiny solar cells the size of a penny (see image).
As we put more sensors on devices and inside our infrastructure, Hansen believes we’re about to open up a new frontier for chip design firms who can build chips for the sensor web. Ambiq is his bet on this, but he expects many more. With an investment from ARM, he’s not the only one betting on a new generation of chips that will need specialized microcontroller and a smaller size, the British licensing company clearly sees an opportunity as well.
The demand for power in mobile devices and in the servers that power large web sites such as Facebook or Google has led to a boost for ARM, which licenses a chip architecture that trades performance speed for power efficiency. For phones this is fine, but for tablets and even servers, it may be time to think up an entirely new architecture. That’s where Adapteva comes in. The company has rethought a RISC-based architecture for chips and built massively multicore chips that are built to run in parallel or independently.
Much like an older startup called Tilera, which is also building massively multicore chips for data centers, Adapteva thinks that x86 doesn’t offer the energy efficiency needed, while ARM doesn’t offer the performance that next generation mobile devices such as tablets and servers will need. So it’s borrowing the concept of massively multicore chips from the high performance computing world and dialing it down for tomorrow’s mobile applications and up for the next generation of HPC. In the coming years, we’ll see more massively parallel chips, but we’ll also see a willingness to jettison the tried and true architectures as we embrace more specialty computing.