Chiplet technology is an older concept that has very recently gained prominence in the tech world. The germ of the idea of chiplets originated way back in the company of American engineer Gordon Moore, the creator of Moore’s Law.
Moore’s Law is the principle that the speed and capability of computers can be expected to double every two years due to increases in the number of transistors a microchip can contain.
Today, Moore’s Law is alive and well. Despite the fact that the pace at which components are continuing to shrink has slowed down, performance (in the form of speed increases from denser integrated circuits) continues to accelerate.
Because it takes more time and money to squeeze smaller transistors onto a piece of silicon, the tech industry sees chiplets as a way forward in the development of modern computer systems.
What are chiplets, anyway?
To put it simply, chiplets are a menu of modular chips that can be connected to build processors.
As process nodes move forward, dramatically rising costs, design cycles, and complexity are driving the industry to focus on chiplets. At present, they provide the best alternative as many industries demand higher rates of transistor count increases than can be supplied by the new fabrication nodes.
While chiplets provide a compelling solution, there is also a hitch: so far, they’ve only been available to a select few industry players. To scale compute power using chiplets, the chip industry needs to first address standards, designs, and business models.
Challenges in setting chiplet standards
The need and desire for chiplets is increasing, but for most companies that shift will happen slowly until proven standards are in place. Interoperability and compatibility depend on many layers and segments of the supply chain coming to agreement. Unfortunately, fragmented industry requirements may lead to a world of too many non-standardized solutions.
Among the standards that need to be ironed out are these four leading issues:
- Physical layer: Moving from separate chips that are packaged and placed on a board, to a package that integrates multiple dies, dramatically changes interconnects.
- Protocols: The reliable transfer of data between dies requires more than just a physical layer.
- Parallel vs. serial: Each evolving standard is a tradeoff between many different factors.
- Signal interfaces: More development is required to make reusable chiplets.
Challenges in establishing chiplet design
As you can imagine, all of the big chip companies are working to find the ideal design for chiplets. New ideas have flooded advanced packaging in the past year or two. As a result, the industry is stuck, for the moment, in a many-voices-few-solutions scenario.
To overcome the stalemate, work needs to be done on the design, verification, and modeling end, and testing needs to happen continually throughout product life cycles. Moreover, everything needs to be reviewed and updated regularly as algorithms change, and because devices within a package may age and degrade at different rates.
Despite the challenges, the industry as a whole is focused on finding a solution, so we can expect that one will arrive sooner rather than later.
Challenges in finding a chiplet business model
Chiplet enthusiasts imagine a re-creation of the system-on-chip industry, whereby chiplets from multiple vendors are all integrated with minimal effort thanks to standardized interfaces. The result would be more flexible and less expensive mix-and-match systems. But the industry is not there yet.
Despite the potential of chiplets to overcome the limitations facing today’s tech world, without a clear business model, the movement to chiplets can’t gain momentum. There are ongoing discussions, workshops, and research papers within the tech industry, but questions around both a viable economic structure and a clear transition path to a booming chiplet market remain unanswered.
Clearly, this is a live issue — and an important one for the future of technology development. We’ll keep following this and other issues affecting the semiconductor industry here on the Talent 101 blog, so make sure you’re subscribed to stay up to speed.