Monday, February 20, 2012

Intel describes PC On-Chip with Dual-Core Atom Processor and WiFi Transceiver at ISSCC

Intel's "PC On-Chip" includes dual Atom processor cores, and a complete RF WiFi transceiver
Intel presented four of the eight papers in the Processor session at the International Solid State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) on Monday, February 20. In paper 3.4, Intel research scientist Hasnain Lakdawala described a "32nm x86 OS-Compliant PC On-Chip with Dual-Core Atom® Processor and RF WiFi Transceiver". The integration of a complete 2.4GHz WiFi transceiver along with peripheral I/O blocks and dual Atom processor cores is targeted by Intel at embedded PC applications, such as wireless industrial controllers.

Lakdawala started his presentation by pointing out three key requirements for such a project: a fabrication process that is compatible with both analog/RF and digital functions, an IP block integration methodology, and scalable analog and RF components. The 32nm Intel CMOS process provides three different transistors: logic transistors (in both standard and high-performance models), low power transistors with lower leakage, and high-voltage I/O devices. Quality passive components, especially inductors, are also required. Intel's process includes an RF optimized metal stack, and a high-resistivity substrate to minimize eddy current losses. Lakdawala  reported two different results for on-chip inductors. Small inductors, on the order of 0.5nH, achieved Qmax of ~25. Larger, 5nH inductors, achieved a Qmax of >15 for 5nH.

Intel designed a new proprietary interconnect fabric for the "PC on a chip", the Intel On-chip System Fabric (IOSF), which connects the various semiconductor intellectual property (SIP) blocks: Universal asynchronous receiver/transmitter (UART), General Purpose Input-Output (GPIO), Secure Digital Input-Output (SDIO), Peripheral Component Interconnect Express (PCIe), Real-time Interrupt Controller (RTIC), and Double Data-Rate RAM Interface (DDR I/F). The IOSF also provides test, debug and validation capability, with visibility to individual IP blocks and an on-chip logic analyzer.

The Atom processor in the PC SoC was scaled from a 45nm core, said Lakdawala, and supports 2-way simultaneous multi-threading.He said that the core is "CAN-ready" (Controller Area Network), which eases testing. To minimize power, the SoC supports Burst Mode to increase the clock speed when higher performance is required, and both the core and the L2 cache employ power gating. The chip also uses the ATOM-style C5 power state. For industrial applications, digital temperature sensors are provided for each core. The architecture supports both Windows and Linux operating systems.

 A unique feature of the PC On-Chip is the Spread Spectrum Clock generator (SSC). All of the system clocks are derived from the 2.5GHz required for the WiFi transceiver. The SSC is used to spread the frequencies of the clocks for the CPU, DDR3, SATA and PCIe blocks by up to 0.5%, in order to reduce the energy of clock noise that is coupled to the SoC substrate, to improve isolation of the RF blocks.

The WiFi transceiver includes a Low-Noise Amplifier (LNA), Power Amplifier (PA), and two transmit/receive switches for simultaneous operation. Lakdawala said that having the PA on-chip tends to pull the Phased-Locked-Loop (PLL), which was prevented by operating at 4X the WiFi channel frequency. A separate on-chip processor and dedicated data path provides a test and calibration engine for the WiFi transceiver. The only remaining off-chip RF component is the balun used to convert the 50-ohm differential output to a single-ended connection to the antenna.

In the Q&A session following the presentation, Lakdawala said that the digital portion of the WiFi modem was implemented in software off-chip, separate from the RF, implying that the design presented is not yet a complete standalone single-chip solution. In response to a discrepancy between the presentation, which decribed the WiFi transceiver as 802.11b/g/n, whereas the text of the paper in the ISSCC Digest describes only 802.11b/g, the author said that a higher Signal-to-Noise would have been required for the 802.11n, but the architecture supports it.

Related Article
Intel at ISSCC 2012: David Perlmutter keynote, details on 22nm tri-gate design and Ivy Bridge demo

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