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Designers Look To Take Computer Chips Off The Clock

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By Tim McDonald
NewsFactor Network
September 18, 2001

A handful of designers are working on chips that are free from the technological constraints of working with an internal clock.

When the first computer chip design pioneers huddled around in their low-tech, under-financed labs, one of the decisions they had to make was whether to stick in a clock.

They needed something that would regulate all the components of the microprocessor in a reliable way, if they were to build something people could depend on. They decided there was no way around it, they had to go with a clock.

Design historians say they made the right choice at the time. In any case, chip designers ever since have been trained to design microprocessors to work to the steady, if lightning-fast, beat of a clock.

It's worked great so far. But there will come a time soon when those tiny, oscillating crystals in chips will bump head on into the laws of physics. That's why a handful of designers today are working on chips free from the constraints of man-made time.

No More Speed Wars?

It's difficult to conceive of chips that don't use clock speeds as measures. The speed wars between Intel, AMD and others have been on the high-tech media radar for years. Clock speeds are something that people who otherwise know very little about computers look for when they scan the shelves or catalogues for a new machine.

Even the most information-resistant computer user knows, for example, that a 1 gigahertz processor is faster than a chip with a clock speed of 500 megahertz. What the user may not know, however, is that a 1 GHz chip is not twice as fast as the 500 MHz.

That's because of the fact that as the speeds of chips increase, the clock itself uses more and more power, in order to be able to synchronize the ever increasing number of transistors on the most advanced, sophisticated chips, such as Intel's Pentium 4.

Nowadays, a clock can consume almost a third of the chip's computing capacity.

Small Group, Big Believers

Electronic pulses that skitter across chips carrying information barely make it between ticks of the 1 GHz chips. When 2 GHz chips start to come out in a couple of years, however, there will be a problem. The clock's traditional role will begin to break down.

The believers in clockless chips, known as "asynchronous" or "self-timed circuits," say it is inevitable clockless chips will eventually replace conventional ones.

Most of the big firms, like IBM, Intel and Sun Microsystems, have devoted portions of their research and development to asynchronous chips. Universities have started teaching students about the clockless concept, and there are a number of small startups devoted to the concept.

Weak Links

Asynchronous chips use power only when there is a reason, when there is a computing task at hand. The transistors on an asynchronous chip can exchange data independently, as opposed to conventional chips, which must wait for every component to do its job before a task can be completed.

A conventional chip can run no faster than its slowest component. Asynchronous chips can run at the average speed of all components. The advantages are numerous. Not only are they faster, the efficiency of their electrical systems are much higher, which means longer battery life.

In addition, they can perform encryption better because they give off no regularly timed signals that hackers can identify and exploit.

Also, asynchronous chips emit very low levels of electromagnetic noise, which means they are far less likely to interfere with other devices, one of the biggest problems for today's mobile chips.

Prototypes Exist

With their potential to revolutionize the chip industry, the logical question is: why haven't these chips become more widely adopted?

Intel, Sun Microsystems and IBM all have prototypes that are two to three times faster than their conventional counterparts, yet the test chips never made it out of the lab.

Philips Electronics has an asynchronous chip-powered pager that runs almost twice as long as others on the market. Few other companies use machines powered exclusively by asynchronous chips, though there are some companies that have incorporated asynchronous concepts -- the Pentium 4 Intel released this year, for example.

Will Catch on Slowly

The answer lies in the nature of the semiconductor industry itself. Over the course of 20 years, the chip industry has invested billions in streamlining testing, developing and manufacturing.

With no mass market to exploit, companies have no financial incentives to develop the "tools" needed to manufacture clockless chips. It would take much longer and be more expensive to get the chips to market, and few profit-driven companies will go to the expense. Also, it has also proven difficult for companies to find asynchronous designers, since the concept is contrary to what most schools have taught for decades.

Still, analysts expect the new chips to catch on slowly, especially in the mobile market, until conventional chips can no longer do the job.

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Re: Designers Look To Take Computer Chips Off The Clock
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Re: Designers Look To Take Computer Chips Off The Clock
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Re: Designers Look To Take Computer Chips Off The Clock
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