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The Revenge of Microprocessor Design: The Return of the Macro

The Revenge of Microprocessor Design: The Return of the Macro
by Bernard Murphy on 11-05-2015 at 12:00 pm

(Two Star Wars™ allusions in one title – eat your heart out George Lucas.) Most of us are comfortable with the idea that you design more or less whatever you want in RTL and let the synthesis tool pick logic gates to implement that functionality. Sure it may need a little guidance here and there but otherwise synthesis is more or less a hands-free operation (subject to meeting timing). Not so for microprocessor designers who until recently, thanks to demands of very tight margins, had to manage sequential stages using special large macros more often than not, even while they relied on synthesis for other logic.

Now it seems FinFET technologies are driving us all back to large macros. The problem is that, in several cases for a variety of reasons to do with the arcana of FinFET technology, an aggregate of small cells placed and routed using standard methods often has significantly lower performance and higher power than a custom-crafted macro (cue old designers muttering “Well – duh”). Some opportunities to optimize are large bit count register trays, pulse latches and retention flops. There are even valuable performance and power improvements possible in folding larger logic gates into registers.

As always, there’s a challenge. Actually two challenges, both in characterization. Large macros simulate exponentially slower than smaller macros because run-time dramatically increases with number of nodes. Worse yet, Monte Carlo Spice, required to deal with acute on-chip variation in FinFETS, massively amplifies run-time on these large circuits. You’re caught between an unavoidable need to use these macros to meet power and performance goals and impossibly long times to characterize with sufficient accuracy to be able to trust that characterization in chip-level analysis.

Maybe you could sample a sparser space in Monte Carlo and apply margins to handle whatever you might have missed? It’s pretty clear this approach is no longer viable, especially if you are running at low voltages (0.6V) where the difference between early and late arrivals can be as much as 100%. And we all know (or should know) about the evils of over margining, perhaps resulting in a problem in a device that came out in spec from one foundry but much higher power (and lower battery life) from another.

So you have to do comprehensive variance analysis and you know that any standard approach is impossibly slow. What you need is a way to simulate large circuits with Spice-level accuracy but much faster, and a better way than Monte Carlo to deal with mapping the effect of variations on many paths into the characterization. Macro FX™, based on the CLKDA FX simulator, combines solutions to both problems. FX is an intrinsically fast Spice accurate simulator (“check” on the first problem), but what I find most interesting is how it deals with the second problem. To elaborate a little more on that issue, no matter how fast any one Spice simulation runs, Monte Carlo techniques multiply that time by hundreds or thousands in order to cover a sufficiently representative sample space. Whatever gain you may have in simulation speed, you lose that and much more in having to run many, many simulations.

FX on the other hand solves for sensitivities based on variances as it runs simulation, which is a lot more efficient than running simulations many times over. The outcome is a parameterization of variances within the characterization data. This can be output as AOCV, LVF, POCV or SOCV tables, or can be used directly in-line in PathFX™ to get the ultimate in signoff accuracy.

You can learn more about how FinFETs are driving a need for larger macros, and how MacroFX helps HERE. To learn more about the effects of variance on timing, especially at low voltages, click HERE.

May the FX be with you.

More articles by Bernard…


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