Monday, March 28, 2011

23: When is a rock, not a rock?

Of course you love your new phone's cool, steel bound obsidian line. But any thoughts it might be cut from raw volcanic rock are soon dismissed when a gesture brings commanding images to its face. A few more and you talk 'through' it to people anywhere, or conjure up memories of your family and hobbies. Small print on the back reveals it was designed in American and assembled in China ... by magicians no doubt; how else do you explain it!

Fortunately humans did not need to know how grass grows, to grow grass. A little more knowledge was required to make a lawn; a lot more to make a modern iGadget...

Its creation involved re-ordering and manipulation of the same basic atoms it shares with that rock; to deliver a function of value to our Cro-Magnon needs. It demonstrates the power of human ingenuity, but it is not magic, neither is it a fraction of complexity of the simplest plant or insect.

It is based on the transistor, a concept only discovered in 1947, where putting two materials together in a certain way enables their electrical properties to be manipulated. The 64 years that followed took early circuits of just one or two transistors, to the hundreds of billions that ‘power’ you phone today. That evolution was created by the independent, global, baby-steps of thousands of researchers, scientists, engineers, mathematicians, chemists and production engineers; and continues today. But a simple concept multiplied by hundreds of billions, represents a colossal design challenge; and one growing rapidly every year with that continued evolution and the race to deploy ever more of them in smaller/better/cheaper products, demanded by the insatiable end-customer ... you!

      ... Inside that phone, the billions of transistors are distributed amongst tens of Components none of which grew on trees, so each needed a team of specialist engineers for its design and manufacture. Many Components have smaller Components within them, which also had specialist design and manufacture. This mesh of specialist capabilities is too great to be bounded by any single company or nation today; but thanks to the Internet, the WTO and International Contract Law; designers and manufacturers can use their specialist knowledge or abilities on their piece of the puzzle wherever they are; contributing to their local economy as they do so ... which is what ARM does. Such iGadgets are "children of the world". They are examples of the Smart Electronic Systems our modern world has become dependent on: Visible ones like Phones, Cameras, TV's, Card readers, GPS’s and Computers; with many more invisibly managing Energy, Transport, Logistics , Finance, etc.

Let’s look for ARM's Intellectual Property (IP) inside a product like this. Prise the front from the back and all is exposed. Ignore the flat re-chargeable ‘plastic’ battery, the micro-miniature vibrator, the tiny 5x8x8mm camera and lens module, the active matrix LCD display, the capacitive touch sensor ... each a wonder in itself ... and focus on the Control Board. This small slim circuit board has about 20 Integrated Circuits (ICs or Chips) and 100 small components densely affixed on both sides. I select one Chip. Like all the others, it has a specific role to fulfil and its architects decided that the best way to achieve it, was to use an efficient configuration of transistors known as a Compute-Engine (CPU or Processor).

      ... Like the card-loom, the Processor reads instructions then acts on them, but it does so more than 100 million times per second; fetching its instructions from another Chip with an efficient configuration of transistors called Memory. Creating the Processor and the Memory are both complex design challenges, but ones that can be shared across many products. Creating the correct sequence of instructions to make the Processor do something useful is another challenge and special languages and tools are created to make this easier and more productive. People spend years becoming expert in parts of this process! The Processor; the way to put it into the chip; the way to program it; and tools and utilities to make it all as easy as possible ... is the highly valued IP Product that ARM contributes to their Life-Cycle.

But one Processor doesn’t fill a Chip these days, in fact a large one takes just a few million transistors, of a Chip with an economic capacity of a few hundred million. So the chip designer will include other functions as well, and will use other sources of IP to achieve it. It is not uncommon for one such Chip to have 10 large Processors, whilst another might have just one small one. Typically such a Chip will incorporate IP licensed or purchased from 5 suppliers, as well as re-using IP from earlier designs.

So such a Chip has many parents as well :-

  • Parts of it designed in the UK; with other parts designed in Europe, India or the USA.
  • Software that runs on it (most is “embedded” and inaccessible to the user) written in the UK, Europe, and America; frequently using tools independently designed and produced in as many different locations.
  • Fabricated in Japan, USA, China or Europe; and packaged in Malaysia, Japan or Taiwan, on equipment of European, Japanese and American origin.

      ... By the time we include manufacture, around 10 companies will have been involved in its creation. The other Chips in the system will have similar but individual stories, and many will also include ARM IP!

More than 30B ARM Processors have been shipped to-date ... That's more than 5 for every person on the planet. How many you can touch right now?

There's just time for an experiment. Pick up a rock, set it on the table next to your phone ... and wait! When one rings, hold one to each ear and say hello ... I bet the rock doesn't tell you something that you didn't already know! (Unless it was a large rock and you brought it to your ear rather too quickly!)

Developments in bridges and sky-scrapers can be seen and appreciated; whilst advances in Electronic Systems technologies are invisible, but much much greater. These are at any time the peak of human achievement; but a stellar accolade only held briefly as year by year they are eclipsed by their successors.

      ... And as we rush to incorporate them in our lives and services, our economic and personal dependence on them just grows and grows.