The Coming Age of 3D Integrated Circuits

The pedagogical model of the integrated circuit goes something like this: take a silicone wafer, etch out a few wells, dope some of the silicon with phosphorous, mask some of the chip off, dope some more silicon with boron, and lay down some metal in between everything. That’s an extraordinarily basic model of how the modern semiconductor plant works, but it’s not terribly inaccurate. The conclusion anyone would make after learning this is that chips are inherently three-dimensional devices. But the layers are exceedingly small, and the overall thickness of the active layers of a chip are thinner than a human hair. A bit of study and thought and you’ll realize the structure of an integrated circuit really isn’t in three dimensions.

Recently, rumors and educated guesses coming from silicon insiders have pointed towards true three-dimensional chips as the future of the industry. These chips aren’t a few layers thick like the example above. Instead of just a few dozen layers, 100 or more layers of transistors will be crammed into a single piece of silicon. The reasons for this transition range from shortening the distance signals must travel, reducing resistance (and therefore heat), and optimizing performance and power in a single design.

The ideas that are influencing the current generation of three-dimensional chips aren’t new; these concepts have been around since the beginnings of the semiconductor industry. What is new is how these devices will eventually make it to market, the challenges currently being faced at Intel and other semiconductor companies, and what it will mean for a generation of chips several years down the road.

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Rumors of Xilinx Sale Abound

The companies that design and build the chips we all use – Atmel, Texas Instruments, Microchip, NXP, Freescale, Intel, Altera, Avago, Broadcom, and On Semi are all buying each other, merging, and slowly becoming two or three gigantic semiconductor companies. The question on everyone’s mind is, ‘which company will be next?’ The answer might be Xilinx, inventors of the FPGA and designers of some really cool parts.

The Wall Street Journal and Barron’s reported a few regulatory filings from Xilinx last week. This could signal an acquisition or merger of the company When this could happen is anyone’s guess, but rumors are flooding the Internet over who would buy Xilinx.

Until recently, Xilinx’s largest competitor in the FPGA market was Altera. That is, until Intel came by with a check for $16.7 Billion. The revenue, size, and market cap of both Xilinx and Altera aren’t too different, leading the question of who would have the money to buy Xilinx and isn’t Intel. Aren’t rumors fun?

Xilinx’s portfolio include high performance, mid-range and low-cost FPGAs as well as interesting hybrid devices. One such hybrid is Zynq, an FPGA and fast ARM Cortex A9 processor in the same package. All these chips will be made for years to come in one form or another. The only question is if Xilinx will make these chips, or will the company continue on under some new branding.

The Trouble With Intel’s Management Engine

Something is rotten in the state of Intel. Over the last decade or so, Intel has dedicated enormous efforts to the security of their microcontrollers. For Intel, this is the only logical thing to do; you really, really want to know if the firmware running on a device is the firmware you want to run on a device. Anything else, and the device is wide open to balaclava-wearing hackers.

Intel’s first efforts toward cryptographically signed firmware began in the early 2000s with embedded security subsystems using Trusted Platform Modules (TPM). These small crypto chips, along with the BIOS, form the root of trust for modern computers. If the TPM is secure, the rest of the computer can be secure, or so the theory goes.

The TPM model has been shown to be vulnerable to attack, though. Intel’s solution was to add another layer of security: the (Intel) Management Engine (ME). Extremely little is known about the ME, except for some of its capabilities. The ME has complete access to all of a computer’s memory, its network connections, and every peripheral connected to a computer. It runs when the computer is hibernating, and can intercept TCP/IP traffic. Own the ME and you own the computer.

There are no known vulnerabilities in the ME to exploit right now: we’re all locked out of the ME. But that is security through obscurity. Once the ME falls, everything with an Intel chip will fall. It is, by far, the scariest security threat today, and it’s one that’s made even worse by our own ignorance of how the ME works.

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Echo of the Bunnymen: How AMD Won, Then Lost

In 2003, nothing could stop AMD. This was a company that moved from a semiconductor company based around second-sourcing Intel designs in the 1980s to a Fortune 500 company a mere fifteen years later. AMD was on fire, and with almost a 50% market share of desktop CPUs, it was a true challenger to Intel’s throne.

An AMD 8080A. source
An AMD 8080A. source.

AMD began its corporate history like dozens of other semiconductor companies: second sourcing dozens of other designs from dozens of other companies. The first AMD chip, sold in 1970, was just a four-bit shift register. From there, AMD began producing 1024-bit static RAMs, ever more complex integrated circuits, and in 1974 released the Am9080, a reverse-engineered version of the Intel 8080.

AMD had the beginnings of something great. The company was founded by [Jerry Sanders], electrical engineer at Fairchild Semiconductor. At the time [Sanders] left Fairchild in 1969,  [Gordon Moore] and [Robert Noyce], also former Fairchild employees, had formed Intel a year before.

While AMD and Intel shared a common heritage, history bears that only one company would become the king of semiconductors. Twenty years after these companies were founded they would find themselves in a bitter rivalry, and thirty years after their beginnings, they would each see their fortunes change. For a short time, AMD would overtake Intel as the king of CPUs, only to stumble again and again to a market share of ten to twenty percent. It only takes excellent engineering to succeed, but how did AMD fail? The answer is Intel. Through illegal practices and ethically questionable engineering decisions, Intel would succeed to be the current leader of the semiconductor world.

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Windows 10 On A Tiny Board

Over the past few months, a number of companies and designers have started picking up the newest Intel SoCs. Intel has to kill ARM somehow, right? The latest of these single board x86 computers is the Lattepanda. It’s a tiny board that can run everything a 5-year-old desktop computer can run, including a full version of Windows 10.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a tiny x86 board in recent months. Last October, an x86 board that takes design cues from the Raspberry Pi 2 hit Kickstarter. These are proper PCs, with the ability to run Windows 10, Linux, and just about every other environment under the sun.

The specs for the Lattepanda include a quad-core Cherry Trail running at 1.8GHz. the RAM is either 2GB or 4GB depending on configuration, and 32GB of eMMC Flash. Peripherals include USB 3.0, Ethernet, WiFi, Bluetooth, and integrated graphics supporting either HDMI or a DSI connector.

But of course a computer is just a computer, and you can’t sell a machine that only runs Skype to the ‘maker’ market. The Lattepanda also includes an ATMega32u4 as a coprocessor, giving this board ‘Arduino functionality’. In my day we walked uphill both ways to get a parallel port, but I digress.

While these tiny x86 boards might not be available in a year’s time, and the companies behind them may fall off the face of the planet, the introduction of these devices portends a great war over the horizon. Intel wants the low-power SoC market, a space until now reserved entirely for ARM-based devices.

Audio Effects on the Intel Edison

With the ability to run a full Linux operating system, the Intel Edison board has more than enough computing power for real-time digital audio processing. [Navin] used the Atom based module to build Effecter: a digital effects processor.

Effecter is written in C, and makes use of two libraries. The MRAA library from Intel provides an API for accessing the I/O ports on the Edison module. PortAudio is the library used for capturing and playing back audio samples.

F9GW4Y4IGQFYP23.MEDIUMTo allow for audio input and output, a sound card is needed. A cheap USB sound card takes care of this, since the Edison does not have built-in hardware for audio. The Edison itself is mounted on the Edison Arduino Breakout Board, and combined with a Grove shield from Seeed. Using the Grove system, a button, potentiometer, and LCD were added for control.

The code is available on Github, and is pretty easy to follow. PortAudio calls the audioCallback function in effecter.cc when it needs samples to play. This function takes samples from the input buffer, runs them through an effect’s function, and spits the resulting samples into the output buffer. All of the effect code can be found in the ‘effects’ folder.

You can check out a demo Effecter applying effects to a keyboard after the break. If you want to build your own, an Instructable gives all the steps.

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Smell Colors With A Synesthesia Mask

Synesthesia is a mix-up of sensory perception where stimulation of one sense leads to a stimulation of a second sense. This is the condition where Wednesdays can be blue, the best part of your favorite song can be orange, and six can be up and to the right of seventy-three. While you can’t teach yourself synesthesia – it’s something you’re born with – [Zachary] decided to emulate color to smell synesthesia with his most recent electronics project.

For his synesthesia mask, [Zach] is turning varying amounts of red, green, and blue found with a color sensor into scents. He’s doing this with an off-the-shelf color sensor, an Intel Edison, and a few servos and test tubes filled with essential oils. The color sensor is mounted on a ring, allowing [Zach] to pick which colors he wants to smell, and the scent helmet contains a small electronics box fitted with fans to blow the scent into his face.

There’s more than one type of synesthesia, and if you’re looking for something a little more painful, you can make objects feel loud with a tiny webcam that converts pixels into pulses of a small vibration motor.

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