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Toshiba's new angle on chip design

The company says its new design method makes chips faster, smaller and cheaper. The revolutionary idea? The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

Toshiba has chosen the road less traveled for a new chip-design method.

The company on Monday announced X Architecture, a new design method that promises to increase the performance and reduce the size and power consumption of system-on-a-chip processors.

The X architecture changes the way a chip's interconnects--metal wires that connect transistors and carry signals--are routed. X architecture allows the interconnects to be routed diagonally across the chip in any of eight directions, instead of following the traditional right-angle-grid routing method used in all but a few of today's chips. The new design uses software from Simplex Solutions, called "liquid routing" technology. Simplex is a company that specializes in the design and verification of integrated circuits.

The news sent Simplex shares up $6.61, more than 23 percent, to $34.61 in mid-day trading.

System-on-a-chip processors are used in an increasingly wider range of devices: anything from set-top boxes and Internet appliances to cellular phones and even networking equipment. A system-on-a-chip processor generally integrates a processor core, memory, buses and the rest of the properties needed to control a device, eliminating the need for several separate chips.

However, the chips tend to be more expensive and sap more power than a standalone chip. But the X architecture aims to change that.

Routing an interconnect diagonally, instead of along a grid, allows it to follow a more direct path. The technique decreases the total distances the interconnect must run and therefore the distance a signal must travel to get to the next transistor. As a result, chip performance increases by at least 10 percent, according to Toshiba.

"We believe that the benefits of this new architecture are so great that within a few years, most designs with five or more metal layers will be implemented using the X Architecture," Susumu Kohyama, a senior vice president at Toshiba, said in a press release.

Powering down
The new method also helps reduce power consumption by about 20 percent, because it takes less power to move a signal a shorter distance. At the same time, the simpler design allows for chips to be made about 30 percent smaller.

The increased performance and lower power consumption are especially desirable to manufacturers that create devices such as set-top boxes.

And the fact that the technique lets chipmakers design smaller processors will help reduce manufacturing costs by about 30 percent, Toshiba said. Cost reductions are even more beneficial to device makers since the budget for a processor in a device such as a set top is very small.

Because of the low cost--and low potential profit margins--of set tops and similar devices, the system-on-a-chip processors that go into them must be inexpensive. Lower-cost, higher-power X chips could give Toshiba or other manufacturers a leg up in the market.

Toshiba will debut chips using the X architecture next year, the company said. X chips from other manufacturers should begin to ship in the second half of 2002.

The company's semiconductor division worked with Simplex Solutions for more than two years to develop X Architecture.

The companies designed an RISC processor core as the first X Architecture design. Toshiba expects to use the X architecture in additional designs starting in 2002.

Meanwhile, a consortium of companies has formed the X Initiative to promote the new chip-design method. The consortium--which includes Dai Nippon Printing, DuPont Photomasks, Etec systems, Applied Materials, KLA-Tencor, Numerical Technologies, PDF Solutions, Tensilica and Virtual Silicon Technology--will hold its first public meeting June 19 in Las Vegas.