#VLSI-Conf-Pune 2013 Event Report: Intelligent Silicon in the Data-Centric Era

(This is a live-blog of the keynote address given by Abhi Talwalkar at the 26th International Conference on VLSI Design being held in Pune. Abhi is the President and CEO of LSI Corporation. (LSI has had a large development center in Pune for the last 4 years.)

(Note: since this is a live-blog, it is only a partial and unorganized report, and might contain errors and omissions.)

The innovation happening in the world since the first transistor was developed has been unparalleled in history. This has led to various changes, including a flat world where anyone can innovate from anywhere in the world, there is lots and lots of collaboration, and where for the first time, information and data are the most important currency.

As a result, we are now seeing a deluge of data. The reasons are:

  • Everybody is on social networks and creating/sharing data
  • Everyone has personal devices (8.5 billion devices sold per year, 40% of them are smart devices), and again people are living a lot of their lives through these devices
  • Other devices are generating data automatically, and will continue to do so

The technology challenges resulting from this data deluge are in the areas of devices, the data centers and the network. These are the challenges in these areas:

  • Bring your own device. Previously, companies insisted on employees using company approved devices (e.g. Blackberry only, and no iPhones). But more and more employees want to use their own devices, and company IT departments are forced to deal with them. The variety of devices that need to be supported is a proble. And the devices need to be always on and always connected – and so do the enterprise backend apps that need to support these devices. The enterprise IT apps need to support mobile devices seamlessly, and in general there is a consumerization of enterprise IT – driving a newfound focus on improved end-user experiences.
  • Green Impact of Devices: All these devices generate e-waste, emissions and use up energy
  • Network bottlenecks: the wireless spectrum which these devices use is getting congested. The backhaul network connections are also facing a capacity crunch. And security in all these areas is an area of increasing concern.
  • Green Impact of DataCenters: Data centers have increased energy consumption by 3x. Telecom in India consumes 3 billion litres of diesel. This is second only to railways, and is a major contributor to the carbon emissions.

Since most of the above seem like software challenges, what does Silicon (Hardware/VLSI/Embedded systems) have to do with them? The answer is that silicon allows you do more with less, and is a key catalyst for innovation. There is much more power in CPUs today than we need – and we need to figure out how to use it. There needs to be more intelligent hardware which knows how to protect the data, where to move it, etc.

What are the specific problems that can/should be solved in silicon?

  • Hardware Accelerators: A full suite of silicon based accelerators can be deployed in the network and the data center.
  • Improve latency and capacity: utilization levels continue to remain low in data-centers, and can be improved significantly
  • Intelligent caching: For example, appropriate use of flash memory between magnetic storage and memory can get much better performance without a significant increase in infrastructure.
  • Use sensors and gather data to make the silicon more intelligent and take better decisions. For example, many companies would leave lights on all night but now more and more are deploying sensors which will turn off the lights when not required. This concept can be extended to many other areas.