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HP shifts chip design work to computers

In a world where semiconductor designers can't keep up with the demand for their services, Hewlett-Packard researchers are working on letting computers design themselves.

PALO ALTO, Calif.--In a world where semiconductor designers can't keep up with the demand for their services, Hewlett-Packard researchers are working on letting computers design themselves.

The Silicon Valley stalwart, opening the doors to its HP Labs on Tuesday, showed a glimpse of a technology that converts a computer program into a chip tailored to run that program--a method that bypasses laborious human fiddling with the abstruse rules of electronic circuit design. For now, though, the technology works only for some types of smaller chips.

The technology is called PICO: program in, chip out. Though HP has yet to push it from prototype to product, the company is working with unnamed business partners on designing specialized chips, said Bob Rau, manager of HP Labs' compiler and architecture research group.

The biggest hurdle to winning acceptance for PICO will be getting people to trust the system, said Vinod Kathail, a project manager working on technology. HP is working on verification tools to show that a chip works as it's supposed to.

"In the beginning, you will have people who are skeptical of PICO," Kathail said. But such obstacles have been overcome before, as with the development of compilers, he said.

PICO is the next stage in a long history of automating design. In earlier days of computing, people had to know the exact language chips spoke--commands such as "load" and "store." Later, higher-level languages permitted programming with easier-to-grasp commands such as "if this, do that"--a technique that required software called a "compiler" to translate these human-friendly commands into instructions the chip could understand.

In addition, human designs that take two years to create a bottleneck in a computer-rich world.

HP isn't the only one trying to foist chip design work onto computers. Celoxica and Adelante Technologies each have software that can design actual circuitry. But HP argues it's ahead of the game.

For one, the HP method creates a multitude of possible designs, throws out the duds, and ranks the winners according to how much they would cost to build and how well they'd perform, Rau said. This method lets a company strike the right balance between chip expense and horsepower.

Another advantage is that HP's system uses the ordinary C language, not variants such as Celoxica's Handel-C. And lastly, HP's design doesn't just create a chip but also designs features of a larger computing system, such as high-speed cache memory.

PICO has been used to create comparatively small chips with 50,000 logic gates--the circuits that govern how electricity flows around the chip to produce useful results. HP believes PICO is best used for designing chips that will give gadgets their special abilities--for example, a video decoder that would give a handheld computer a sharper display than competitors'.

Technology such as PICO will be necessary to keep up with the demand for chips, Rau said. In the 1950s, thousands of people shared a single CPU in a mainframe computer. Starting in the 1980s, desktop computers meant one CPU per person. Now a car has 40 to 70 CPUs, and chips are being built into more and more devices.

Under pressure
Though HP's research and design lab stands alongside peers such as IBM's Thomas Watson Research Center, Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center and Lucent's Bell Labs, the recent spending downturn is taking its toll.

Research often is funded as a fraction

Gartner analysts Gary Smith and Dean Freeman believe HP's challenge will be a lack of sales channels for its PICO technology.

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of revenue, and HP's revenue growth has slowed dramatically during the current gloomy climate. HP Labs hasn't been exempt from the resulting pressure to cut expenses, said Howard Taub, director of HP Labs' printing and imaging technologies center.

"That does force us to be more strategic and make choices," Taub said. "We have not canceled anything major, but there is certainly belt-tightening."

Among those projects canceled was one for a small scanning appliance, he said.

Another change for HP Labs is increasing cooperation with other large companies, Taub said. While it's long been a practice to sign deals with other companies--such as HP's work with NTT DoCoMo to develop future cell phone networks that can send streams of video--such partnerships are on the increase, Taub said.

"There certainly has been a trend in the last few years to engage leading-edge partners," Taub said.

Also on Tuesday's tour of the labs, several technologies that HP showed off in 1999 made a repeat appearance.

One idea that's edged toward reality is HP's CoolTown project to show the workings of a world with interactions between handheld computers, printers, ticket offices, grocery stores, and all sorts of other devices and services. Some elements haven't changed, such as "squirting" a Web address to a digital projector.

But the demonstration now has cleverer features such as a handheld computer that knows which direction it is pointing so that services can pop up when a person directs it at a printer, a Macy's store or a hospital.

HP also boasted of its expertise in designing large-scale data centers of the future containing as many as 50,000 servers and storage devices, roughly 10 times the size of today's largest. HP's heat-flow models will allow customers to cut energy usage by 15 percent to 25 percent just by creatively arranging computers and air-conditioning systems, said Rich Friedrich, principal architect in HP Labs' Internet systems and storage lab.

Susie Wee, project manager of the lab's streaming-media technologies group, showed off technology that lets a video stream being sent to a PC be split off for two handheld computers, with the stream "transcoded" in real time so it can be sent over a slower wireless connection and displayed on the smaller screens.

The technology is being developed in partnership with Japanese cell phone giant NTT DoCoMo.