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Changing chips: want mobile Web surfing? A new breed of chips may just make it a breeze.

This article is one in a continuing series from Deloitte & Touche.

Hard-wired chips have their place, but as today s wireless market progresses and we head toward 2.5G, 3G, and even 4G mobile phones, reconfiguring computer chips on the fly becomes a key factor in the viability of sophisticated mobile services.

Reconfigurable computing has its roots in the '60s, but got a big boost in the '90s when the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) got in the game, spending $125 million in research. While DARPA-sponsored research is still underway, at least a couple of companies have come up with solutions that move beyond hard-wired chips--like digital signal processors (DSPs) and programmable logic chips--to a processor that can be programmed in the field to perform different tasks while the data is flowing. It may sound futuristic, but eventually we may have a reconfigurable chip that could alternate between being a CPU, a graphics chip, an audio chip, or a video chip. Buy one gadget and turn it into another simply by downloading a new function.

But current developments are more modest, and the history is based on the quest for a better performing, more flexible processor.

"DARPA began the reconfigurable computing challenge to achieve a breakthrough in how we do computation to get 10 to 100 times improvement," says Jaime Cummins, president and CEO of QuickSilver Technology. "They did research into different silicon architectures and out of that work came a lot of ideas that spawned a number of startups."

This handful of startups--including QuickSilver and Chameleon Systems--is developing chips that potentially offer higher performance, lower power, and more flexibility. It's a burgeoning market, estimated by research firm Forward Concepts to reach $1.3 billion by 2004.

"We took the early work and developed a processor that could be configured in real time," Cummins notes. "On top of that, it has the ability to do it with low cost and low power."

Why Wireless?

Both QuickSilver and Chameleon have targeted the wireless market. In many applications like wireless, as we move to 2.5G and 3G systems, carriers must support multiple standard protocols and algorithms to deliver high-speed data, Also, the carriers must make money selling voice and data services that are currently supported by traditional technologies like DSPs and Field-Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs), a type of programmable logic chip. Unlike landline carriers, wireless carriers find it difficult to predict wireless traffic characteristics between voice and data, and require more data and voice cards to make sure they can meet demand.

"The problem is that there are many different approaches to delivering high-speed data," says Charles Fox, CEO of Chameleon. "Additionally, data takes anywhere from 10 to 100 times more bandwidth and processing power than voice. That means that carriers today have to have data and voice cards in their networks because they don't know how much demand there will be."

With a reconfigurable approach, chips can be customized by the telecom equipment suppliers for their particular algorithms and applications using software. "In wireless, it's called 'software-defined radio,'" explains Fox. "When a call comes into the base station, it recognizes the kind of call it is and reconfigures the chip to do either a voice or data algorithm. That provides a benefit to the carrier because it can build a base station with fewer parts that is more responsive to new services."

Taking it a step further, cell phones could be designed to allow configuration in the field through software downloads from the base station to support multiple protocols in the system in real time. With the functions stored in the base station and not the phone, these companies say, another benefit is realized: overall power consumption is reduced.

While this architecture has almost no benefit now, says analyst Will Strauss, president of Forward Concepts, eventually it will. "In future wireless applications we'll want software-defined radio. My handset and I can stroll anywhere on the planet and adjust to the air interface [the various mobile communication protocols that change as you move from one part of the world to another] in real time. When we get to 4G, we'll also want things like multi-user detection. It identifies specific users so the shape of the antenna beam can change and allow you to find someone farther away than normal. That means fewer base stations are necessary. And all this has to be done in real time on the fly."

With 4G, adds Fox, wireless standards will have to support high-bandwidth applications like video, which takes another 10 to 100 times more processing power and bandwidth than data calls. "An enormous amount of power is needed, and at the same time, the carrier will not be able to anticipate when or where that bandwidth and processing power is needed, so it's another reason we believe the world is moving toward reconfigurable processors," he says.

Dynamic Devices

Chameleon is focusing on applications that include second- and third-generation wireless base stations, a fixed-point wireless local loop, smart antennas, a voice-over-IP, secure communications, a very high bit-rate digital subscriber line and communications applications that have traditionally used re-programmable devices. But other companies, such as QuickSilver, are designing chips for cell phones, PDAs, and other devices to allow them to perform multiple tasks without adapter hardware. And with the heavy processing power and bandwidth that video applications call for, that flexibility and lower battery consumption become even more imperative.

QuickSilver, whose "adaptive computing machine" (ACM) products are still in development, has entered into development agreements with companies and expects them to deploy devices in early- to mid-2003. The company's ACM will be able to process data as quickly as a custom chip, and between 10 to 100 times faster than a DSP using one-tenth of the power at one-twentieth of the size.

"Today, if I was going to get a PDA and add a camera or a phone, I'd have to get an add-on module," says Cummins. "It's not an elegant fit with the original device--it adds weight and may or may not work very well. In our case, with what we end up creating, yon don't have to add that particular piece of hardware with it. Depending on the device, you may have to add a small module like a camera lens, but the addition is less or nothing at all. From an industrial design point of view, you have a simpler and easier design. From a consumer point of view, the product is easier to use and there's less to buy."

According to Jeff Balentine, a global technology leader in Deloitte & Touche's Technology, Media & Telecommunications Group, "You could put more features and functionality on a single chip and lower costs," he notes. "The fact that it's reconfigurable means you can develop products quicker and it shortens the time to market. To the extent that they can integrate different features and functions on a single chip solution, it will save battery power."

Paul Lee, director of Deloitte Research in Mobile and Wireless in London, believes that battery power is, in fact, the key benefit to this technology. "One of the issues with mobile phones is power consumption, especially with high bit rates," he. explains. "One of the areas in which there's been little progress is battery life. The increases in battery power haven't kept up with the increases in processing speed. If you have a device with phone and data, I suspect many users wouldn't be happy having to constantly recharge the batteries."

As user demands for high-speed data skyrocket, users will expect these services to be delivered easily by wireless providers. Reconfigurability is being spurred on by these expectations.

Scott Angel is a partner, Assurance & Advisory at Deloitte & Touche, Technology & Communications Group (San Jose, CA).
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Title Annotation:Server & PC
Author:Angel, Scott
Publication:Computer Technology Review
Date:Feb 1, 2002
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