Electronic Design

Visions Of The Future (Part 1): A Ubiquitous Cloud Of Computing

A vastly different information technology (IT) landscape awaits us in the not-too-distant future, one marked by a world of ubiquitous computing that “will change the way we think about IT.” Such was the vision outlined by Dr. Jan Rabaey of the University of California at Berkeley in a keynote address delivered at last week’s CDNLive! Silicon Valley, the latest in Cadence Design Systems’ worldwide series of user conferences. This vision will have profound impact on the way design is to be approached as well.

According to Dr. Rabaey, who is the Donald O. Pederson Distinguished Professor, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, University of California at Berkeley, the mobility afforded to society by wireless technology has led to the failure of earlier IT models. Rather, a new paradigm will emerge in which a core of giant data-storage centers with massive computation capacity, connected by optical fiber, will take over nearly all computational tasks.

That core of massive processing power and memory will anchor the surrounding mesh of portable access devices, comprising smartphones, laptops, gaming systems, and other wireless devices. These mobile platforms, according to Dr. Rabaey, will increasingly offload computational tasks to the core, becoming little more than user interfaces that provide access to the vast resources at the core data centers. The final element of this vision of completely immersive computing is what Rabaey terms “the sensory swarm.” According to Rabaey, “the world around us will have tons of sensors embedded in all kinds of objects. This platform is where applications will run. These sensors, our mobiles, and the infrastructure core will all come together in a fully immersive environment. We have to think about the whole, not the components.”

Rabaey termed it “mindboggling” that as of this year, there are some 3 billion wireless subscribers worldwide, with mobile devices outnumbering PCs by about five to one. “How this drives the semiconductor industry is very important,” he said. The result is an explosion in Wi-Fi chipsets and cell phone chips.

Furthermore, the growth in the wireless world is accelerating. “There will be 5 billion people connected wirelessly by 2015,” said Rabaey. “And by 2017, we anticipate 7 trillion wireless devices serving 7 billion people.” That last statistic translates to 1,000 radios per person on Earth, which sounds fanciful, but it’s not. When one considers that each cell phone has several radios, the number of radios per person begins climbing. “We’re moving toward smart homes and high-performance industrial and office buildings, which will be filled with wireless devices,” said Rabaey. “Automotive applications such as smart cars and traffic management systems based on GPS-equipped phones will become universal. Consider the growth of health and medical wireless applications as well.” Capping all of this, he said, is the growth of RFID applications.

The largest changes, said Rabaey, will come in the outlying “sensory swarm,” which comprises the information-gathering network that would feed the massive IT core with mountains of raw data to be processed and spun back out to us on our mobile devices. “We’ll use ubiquitous sensors to give virtual eyes, ears, and hands to the Internet,” said Rabaey. “These sensors will be quite complex, requiring self-contained RF, digital circuitry, clocks, and processing engines. Here, we will push low-power design to the extreme.

Rabaey envisions sensors in the skin of aircraft that measure mechanical stresses and strains, as well as smart automobile tires that measure how fast we’re moving and what kind of surface we’re driving on. He anticipates biomedical sensors literally injected into the body for microscopic health monitoring. “All of this will mean another leap in terms of cost, size, and power,” said Rabaey. “It’s going to take us well beyond Moore’s Law, to a point at which we must look at the biological world to inspire architectures that will afford an order-of-magnitude improvement in efficiency and power management.”

Creating this massive and immersive computing infrastructure will mean a major shift in the direction of system-level design, said Rabaey. “System level design is finally here and this IT paradigm will force us to think from a system perspective. You’re toast if you don’t.”

To Rabaey’s thinking, the industry to date has focused too much on component-level design. “This way of thinking costs us opportunities. We must begin to think about systems in a top-down, holistic way.” Further, the complexity of this infrastructure will mean new metrics and benchmarks by which we will measure design quality. “The benchmarks of old are based on high-performance PC applications,” said Rabaey, referring to metrics such as SPECmarks or EEMBC. “As an industry, we’ll need to come up with relevant benchmarks for this emerging paradigm.” Some possibilities include measurements of “user experience per unit energy,” system latency, or reliability as a function of latency.

In concluding his keynote talk, Rabaey declared that the time of always-connected computing has arrived and that its growth will be exponential. “Ten years from now, truly immersive systems will be the model for how we live in the world,” he said. He urged the EDA industry to extend itself from a component orientation to a systems orientation, saying that this transformation can happen only through broad collaboration between the semiconductor and EDA industries and the academic community. “Fortunately, the ingredients for this transformation are already in place,” he concluded.

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