P.A. Semi’s PA6T-1682M System-on-a-Chip

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Recently, the computer industry has struggled with the twin issues of power consumption and heat dissipation. Part of this was because architects had assumed that system builders and consumers would be willing to deal with 100W chips, in order to have the highest performance. While the general purpose computation market has been heating up, the embedded market has always been far more conscious of cost, heat, power and space. At the 2005 Fall Processor Forum, P.A. Semi, a three year old start up has come out of the shadows to present a brand new system on a chip (SOC) architecture for high performance embedded designs.

P.A. Semi has an incredibly strong team of 150 engineers that have been joined from throughout the industry. Three of the P.A. executives are Dan Dobberpuhl, Jim Keller and Pete Bannon. Astute readers will notice that all three of these can trace their roots to the legendary design teams at the Digital Equipment Corporation and were heavily involved in VAX, Alpha and/or StrongARM design. P.A. Semi has also been able to reap the benefit of the high attrition among proprietary RISC design teams, picking up designers from Intel, AMD, Sun and SiByte.

While many expected that P.A. Semi would be using a MIPS core, based on their heritage from SiByte, P.A. Semi is a founding member of Power.org, and along with IBM and Motorola, is the third company with a Power architectural license. The only other options for the ISA were MIPS or ARM, and the rationale for using Power is relatively clear. While ARM is the dominant architecture in the PDA and cell phone (and iPod) markets, it has virtually no presence in telecommunications. MIPS still has a strong presence in telecommunications and other embedded markets, but unfortunately, lacks a heavyweight sponsor like IBM. IBM has invested a tremendous amount of time, money and effort promoting the Power architecture for a couple of reasons. First of all, they want to ensure that Power survives, unlike many proprietary RISC architectures, and widespread adoption is the best chance it has. Second, by encouraging fabless PowerPC based designs, IBM’s Micro-electric division can hopefully pick up some much needed business for their fabs. Ultimately, this means that there are more tools, support and developers for PowerPC than for the alternatives. This made P.A. Semi’s choice dead simple, take advantage of IBM and Motorola’s investments in infrastructure, but differentiate with a unique product family.

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