Electronic Design

A Coordinated Attack On Power Consumption

In the 1990s, “power” was about supplying power to a system or providing volts and amps to a PC card. For most people, “low power” was about a few power-conscious products that looked good on paper, but often saw little success. Recently, there have been two significant changes. First, the world is increasingly portable and battery-powered. That’s resulted in an endless list of low-power offerings—from ICs and fab processes to regulators and chargers. Second, and more importantly, global warming has emerged as a serious issue. Companies both large and small are talking about reducing energy usage in all parts of the power continuum, with the ultimate goal of helping to protect the environment. We need to embrace these efforts to achieve this goal. According to recent predictions, the average global temperature will rise by 11°F by the turn of the century if nothing changes. Clearly, this is not an option. Though we’ve taken great steps to become lead-free and RoHS-compliant, we have not adequately addressed the power issue. In fact, we’ve barely scratched the surface. What we need today is a coordinated attack on all aspects of power consumption at both the chip and the system levels. From a chip perspective, it’s about designing and delivering truly low-power products that reduce both dynamic and static power consumption with minimal performance impact. To do this, we’ll need to employ known techniques, such as clock gating, multiple voltage thresholds, dynamic power switching, multiple voltage domains, and static-leakage power management. Then, we’ll need to develop and implement new techniques in our quest for lower power. From a system perspective, many elements greatly increase the complexity of board-level power management today: the need for multiple power supplies; device cores running at lower voltages; I/O voltages different from and higher than the core; and, the need for access to and management of multiple power rails. Hence, we see the increasing importance of making systems smart enough so that they don’t consume power if they don’t need to. They should be smart enough to know how much power they’re using, and why, at any given time. Moreover, they should be smart enough to recognize problems and how to solve them. The same concepts being employed at the chip level can and should be applied at the system level. Other techniques can also be employed, such as intelligent power monitoring and management, the distribution of system traffic and loading, system partitioning, and the selective power-up of portions of the system on an as-needed basis. A surprisingly high percentage of the greenhouse gasses produced today stems from the generation of the electricity required to power electronic systems. Even worse, that percentage is rising sharply. We, as a community, are partly responsible for the problems, so we need to hold ourselves accountable for providing solutions. If we don’t, it’s going to get very hot around here. John East is the president and CEO of Actel Corp.

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