IBMs autonomic computing effort, which aims to build software and systems that all but run themselves, is making its way into computing hardware with the development of new technology that lets microprocessors monitor, regulate and heal themselves.
The chip-morphing technology, called eFuse and unveiled late last month, is designed to enable processors to adjust themselves dynamically in response to problems or systems demands without human intervention.
EFuse is a patented process that combines software algorithms and microscopic electrical fuses that can be used to produce chips that adapt on the fly to increase performance or avoid problems, according to IBM officials. It can monitor and manage power consumption, repair problems and sense changes in demands on the chip.
For instance, the technology can sense when the chip needs to increase or decrease performance to avoid a potential problem, such as memory failure or running at an incorrect speed. It then reconfigures the chip to meet the changed demands by tripping electrical fuses integrated into the chip.
Chip makers can use the morphing technology to alter chips for systems makers depending on the needs of a user, officials said.
For IBM, the technology initially will let it increase the yield of good chips off the wafers coming out of its manufacturing facilities, said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight64, in Saratoga, Calif. Instead of having to go through time-consuming manual tests of chips, the processors are tested on the wafer and any problems can be corrected with eFuse.
"It facilitates IBM improving the yield on its product, and yield is an area IBM needs help in," Brookwood said. For example, Apple Computer Inc., of Cupertino, Calif., earlier this year complained that IBM was unable to keep up with Apples demand for PowerPC 970 processors for its G5 systems.
"One reason [that it was having trouble meeting Apples demand] is because IBM cant get enough good chips out of the wafer," Brookwood said.
EFuse should help improve that issue, he said.
IBM, of Armonk, N.Y., has been looking at ways to add value to chips that go beyond simply increasing their frequency. The industry can no longer focus on chip speed and size as the key factors for platform development, said Bernard Meyerson, chief technologist and vice president of IBMs Technology Group, at an event this spring to announce it was opening up its Power processor architecture so other companies could innovate on top of it.
The continued shrinking of the chips has led to faster, cheaper and more dense systems, but it also has resulted in chips that burn a lot of power through leakage. And while the development of the chips has driven the industry for the past four decades, going forward it will be how the architecture optimizes systems and software that will propel future innovation, Meyerson said.
"The bottom line is, you cant make things smaller forever," Meyerson said. "Its not about the gigahertz or megahertz. ... Its about system optimization. This is going to be a world driven by integration."
IBM foundry customers can start using eFuse technology now, in such jobs as testing and validating chips as they come off the wafer, an IBM spokesperson said. That work is currently done manually, using lasers to repair or remove imperfections. With eFuse technology, the processor can do the testing and validation tasks and make changes as needed, all of which reduces costs and the time to market for products, IBM officials said.
Future uses for eFuse could include autonomic processors that can self-monitor, self-heal and reconfigure themselves dynamically after theyve been put into systems.
EFuse can be used in a variety of chips, including IBMs Power5 and low-power silicon germanium, or SiGe, processors for wired and wireless communication devices. IBM officials expect the technology to appear in chips for everything from cell phones to computers.
EFuse technology will be embedded onto the chip at no extra charge to the companys customers, said the IBM spokesperson.
The Power5 chips are produced at the companys 90-nanometer processor manufacturing facility in East Fishkill, N.Y. The SiGe communications chips are made at a site in Burlington, Vt., according to the spokesperson.
Although eFuse can be morphed only a finite number of times over the course of the chips life—unlike flash memory, which can constantly change—the technology is unique to IBM and should be a boon to its foundry customers and its chip manufacturing facilities, where it is already in use, Brookwood said.