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Chameleon Computing

Chips that reconfigure on the fly

March 22, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Imagine a handheld device that combines the functionality of a cell phone, a PDA, an MP3 player, a digital camera, a television and a half-dozen other devices.
Whatever the merits of such a gizmo, for the moment at least, building it is still infeasible. The separate microprocessor logic needed for each function would require far too much real estate and energy to fit into anything resembling a decent handheld.
Proponents of a long-held concept called reconfigurable computing think they may have an answer to the problem.
Reconfigurable computing involves processor hardware capable of automatically adapting to changing application needs. Unlike the permanently etched circuitry on current-generation static microprocessors, the wiring on reconfigurable processors can be redrawn on the fly by software- or hardware-based microcontrollers, to match the function being performed. By opening and closing the millions of logic gates on such chips, their circuitry can be changed so as to perform signal processing one instant, for example, and an encryption function the next.
Because reconfigurable computing chips do away with a lot of the redundancy and overhead found on static processors, they also consume less energy while delivering greater speed.
For instance, a single such chip in a cellular handset could configure itself to search for a local base station, then establish its identity on the cell and finally send or receive calls - tasks that today require multiple chips.

Chameleon Computing
Image Credit: John Brillon
"What you are trying to do is to change the hardware to match the problem at hand," says John Watson, co-founder of QuickSilver Technologies Inc., a developer of adaptive computing technologies in San Jose.
Such malleable chips represent a fundamental shift in microprocessor design, says Nick Tredennick, a former microprocessor architect and editor of the Gilder Technology Report in Great Barrington, Mass.
"All the microprocessors that we have today are basically 30- or 40-year-old designs," says Jim Turley, an independent analyst in Pacific Grove, Calif. "We are fundamentally making the same computers our grandfathers did, even though silicon technology has improved dramatically."
Though it might sound radically new, the concept of adaptive computing architectures has been floating around in one form or another for some time. Indeed, several companies - from relatively unheard-of start-ups such as QuickSilver and GateChange Technologies Inc. to the likes of Intel Corp., Motorola Inc. and Infineon Technologies AG - have efforts under way in the area of reconfigurable computing.
For example, QuickSilver offers an integrated circuit technology that dynamically changes at runtime to create the hardware needed for different applications. Someday, such technology could form the basis of a universal cell phone


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