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IBM gets refined with chip software

Big Blue has developed a program that can automatically determine the best-size circuitry components for a given microprocessor design.

IBM has developed a program that can automatically determine the best-size circuitry components for a given microprocessor design, balancing factors such as circuit speed and power consumption.

The software, called EinsTuner, lets IBM chip designers build more-refined products without having to spend as much time hand-tuning them, said Leon Stock, senior manager of design automation at IBM Research.

IBM researchers plan to describe the technology in a paper to be presented at the Design Automation Conference beginning June 10.

Having high-performance processors is critical to IBM's computing plans. It has embarked on a strategy to consolidate its three high-end server lines so they use the same microprocessor. With all those eggs in one basket, it will be essential that the chip be competitive with products from Sun Microsystems and Intel.

IBM is also working to improve the transistors--the tiny switches that make up a chip's circuitry.

The EinsTuner technology is part of the steady march toward automation that's become an essential part of designing ever-larger microprocessors, the electronic brains that let computing devices process data and shuttle it over networks.

But automation has its drawbacks.

Often, giving automated computing processes a bigger say in creating technology such as microprocessors or software has meant that designers sacrificed careful optimization for a computer's brute-force methods. Automation gets a product out the door faster, but can result in bloated software or chips that are larger than they need to be.

IBM's EinsTuner aims to bring a new level of refinement to automation by focusing on just the sort of careful optimization that earlier automation software didn't address.

Not all transistors are equal. Larger ones switch on and off faster, improving chip performance, but they occupy more real estate and soak up more power. Smaller transistors are slower and have a harder time producing a clean electrical signal, but consume less power and area.

A chip designer's job involves balancing different transistor sizes, tapping the larger ones only for frequently used computing processes to squeeze the most performance out of a chip design, Stock said.

"It's quite a big problem in microprocessor design," Stock said.

At present, the EinsTuner software only works on the parts of chips in which circuitry is laid out by hand, Stock said. But the next-generation version will also work in conjunction with synthesis software that lays out circuits on its own, expanding the usefulness of EinsTuner.

The EinsTuner technology was used to design parts of IBM's two most prestigious processors, the Power4 processor used in its top-end p690 "Regatta" Unix server and the 64-bit processor code-named Blueflame that powers the new z900 and z800 mainframes.

EinsTuner was used to optimize about 20 percent to 25 percent of the Power4's circuitry, Stock said.

IBM doesn't plan to license the technology to other chip-design companies, Stock said, but it does plan to improve EinsTuner for its own use.