All things to all men

By Paul Dempsey |  No Comments  |  Posted: May 1, 2009
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Welcome to EDA Tech Forum’s low-power edition. Beginning with last year’s special focusing on PCBs, we began to take these occasional steps sideways from a broad-based agenda to concentrate on particularly active slices of the design world.

Low-power has been a ‘hot button’ for some time, and the market originally fueled its importance. Cell phones are no longer cell phones—they can now do so many things that they virtually defy description, but they also have to stay alive long enough to satisfy a user’s basic needs. Then, there is our long-standing quest for a laptop that can cross the Atlantic juiced by just one battery. And finally, the tasks we now charge our equipment with need, for example, multiple radios, high-quality displays and hi-fi standard audio, functions that can all be termed ‘hungry’.

However the topic today stretches beyond commercial demands. There’s a planet to save—greater power consumption efficiencies will not only reduce pollution but could also reduce our dependence on the often-unstable countries that currently supply our energy imports.

Moreover, one of the biggest changes on the horizon may be the extent to which low power becomes a regulatory and mandatory issue. For years, the rumor was that many branches of the federal government paid only lip service to the requirement that they benchmark purchases against a range of performance standards. That looks certain to change.

Meanwhile, outside the U.S., some regulators have already moved on from issues such as hazardous materials and the recycling of electronic devices to address concerns with ‘vampire’ standby power consumption on a stricter basis than before.

You can hardly blame them. Research in the U.K. by the Energy Savings Trust estimated that the combined annual standby consumption of that nation’s TVs, DVDs and VCRs exceeded $400M in wasted energy. One rule of thumb says that you can get a U.S. number from a British one by applying 10X—i.e., $4B.

And then there are those server farms—huge energy-gobbling racks of hardware cooled by enormous fans and air-conditioning plant that demand almost as much power as the equipment they serve. They are moving inexorably up the ranking of major industrial energy consumers, and innovations such as cloud computing could accelerate the trend (trade-offs notwithstanding).

So, while low power might be a niche issue, compared to our usual remit, it is a very big one—veritably a New York Yankees/Manchester United-combined of niches. As such, we won’t be able to cover all its subsections here, but we do offer a very broad set of insights, sourced from manufacturers, green campaigners, tools and IP suppliers, and most importantly, chip and system designers. As ever, many thanks to all our contributors and to you for reading.

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