Archive for February, 2011

February 20th, 2011 ~ by admin

Russian Computers on the Buran Shuttle

In the 1970′s and the 1980′s the Soviets developed and successfully flew their own version of the Space Shuttle.  It was called the Buran.  In many ways it was an enhancements of the US Space Shuttle, based on what the Soviets saw as deficiencies in the US design.  One of the biggest differences was the piloting.  The US STS (Shuttle Transport System) was designed to be a crewed vehicle.  The computers assisted the pilot/co-pilot in launch, orbit, and recovery.  Many of the functions on the STS can be handled by the computers (the Flight Computers were based on the IBM System/4 Pi) but the pilot was needed to handle the rest.  The Soviets, on the other hand, designed the Buran to be able to launch, orbit, and land fully automatically.  This meant the computers has to be very robust, and the programming even more so.  The computers had to respond quickly to chaning inputs, and be able to handle failures gracefully.  While each mission would have a set profile, unknown conditions would cause deviations that the computers must detect, analyse, and properly handle.  Preferably without wrecking the multi-billion ruble space craft.

Buran Computer

The main computer of the Buran is actually 4 independent systems that receive the same inputs.  The clock in generated externally (with 4 backups) so that each computer is in perfect time (the STS uses software to ensure the computers are in time, rather then hardware).  Redundancy is achieved by the voting system. Each computers outputs are compared, if one computers output is different, it is automatically shut down, leaving the 3 remaining computers.  These computers are powered by a clone of the DEC PDP-11.  The Soviet’s ‘acquired’ a few PDP/11 systems and then copied and cloned them into many different systems.  The most common is the 1801 a 5MHz NMOS PDP-11 type device.  The Buran used the 1806, which is the CMOS version.   Here is a general overview of the flight computer.

Angstrem CMOS N1806VM2 - MicroVAX

In addition to the 1806 there were many sub-systems with their own processors.  Details on these are a bit thin, however looking at other Soviet space computer designs it is very likely that many of these used the 134IP3 series of ALUs (a clone of the 54L181 TTL 4-bit ALU).  This chip is also used in the Argon-16 and Argon 16A computers of the Soyuz and Progress spacecraft that are still in use today.  Bit-slice devices were used extensively for many Soviet designs as it gave them a great ability to design custom processors to meet the applications needs.  The Argon-17, which was used for anti-ballistic missile work, was based on the 583 series, an 8-bi slice processor.  The C100 and C101 computers (used as weapons computers on the MiG-29) also use a BSP design.

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February 17th, 2011 ~ by admin

The AMD 2901 Bit Slicer and Second Sourcing

AMD AM2901ADC – 1977

In August 1975 AMD introduced the ’100 ns Bipolar microprocessor.’ This was a bit-slice device. Essentially a 4-bit ALU (like a 74181) with functionality (scratch pad memory and accumulator register) to make it work as a processor that could be scaled to any bit width (using the 2909 sequencer and 2910 controller).  Being made in bipolar allowed for the high speed (10MHz at the time was pretty quick).  The introduction of the 2901 also marked the beginning of the end to the competition int he bit-slice arena.  A combination of marketing, second-sourcing, and a good product allowed AMD to completely dominate the bit-slice market.  Even today most bit-slice designs are based on the 2901 from 35 years ago.

At the time there were several other bit-slice processors on the market.  Intel had the 3002 (a 2-bit design), National’s IMP-8 and IMP-16, and the original TTL 74181 were all bit-slice devices.  MMI (which AMD bought in the 1980′s) had introduced the 6701 4bit slice in 1974, a full year before AMD’s 2901.  TI had the SBP0400A and Motorola the MC10800 (in ECL – 1976). So why with all this competition did AMD come to dominate?

Raytheon AM2901ADC – 1980

Second Sourcing

Second sourcing is the licensing of a design to other companies for them to manufacture, market and sell it.  Sometimes its simply a license to manufacture, sometimes it comes with technical assistance, or even complete mask sets to make the device.  There are three main reasons this is done (or was done back in the day)


Guaranteed Availability.

In the 1970′s making IC’s was a relatively new process, one with many bugs, and often reliability issues.  Having a second source was a must to get a big design win. A system design would not want to design a system around a chip that may end up not being available, or not be available in the quantities needed.  Having a second source to get the IC from alleviated this problem.  It gave system designers a stable supply, regardless if the primary source could not keep up, or had a problem.



Second-sourcing helped solve distribution problems as well.  A company may have an excellent design, but no way to sell it.  Often this was a geography problem.  American companies did not initially have a large presence, or distributors set up, in Europe or Japan.  An American company would often second-source a design to a European company (such as Siemens or Thomson) solely to get their design distributed in that area.



One of the keys to a processors success is design wins.  It can be the best processor on the market,. but if no one uses it, it will fail.  Having additional companies make, and market the processor vastly increased its exposure.  Second-source companies would also typically make development systems, and other support tools, as well as vast documentation for the processor.  This helped ensure that engineers knew about the processor, how to use it, and whee to get it, ensuring its winning of more sockets.

Soviet Electronika 1804VS1 – 2901 Clone – 1988

AMD clearly understood the importance of second-sourcing.  In November 1975, just months after the 2901 was released, they designed an agreement with Motorola to make the 2901.  In December, they signed up Raytheon, and in March of 1976 AMD signed an agreement with the SESCOSEM division of Thomson-CSF, to make and distribute the 2901 in markets outside the US and Japan. In June 1976 AMD amended their agreement with Motorola to include more technical assistance, ensuring Motorola could get the 2901 to market. In September 1976 MMI canceled the 6701, as they were unable to compete.  MMI had no second-sources for the 6701 which likely led to its failure.

As the years went by, AMD added more second-sources, and dropped a few. Eventually coming to completely dominate the bit-slice market.  The Soviets began to copy the 2901 around 1985 (not particularly legally but they did what they had to) and continued to do so until well into the 90′s.

Year Second Sources
1975 Motorola
1976 Motorola, Raytheon, Thomson
1977 Motorola, Raytheon, Thomson, National
1978 Motorola, Raytheon, National, Fairchild, NEC, Signetics, Thomson
1980 Motorola, Raytheon, National, Fairchild, NEC, OKI (MSM8821?), Thomson
1982 Motorola (2903), National, Fairchild, NEC, Thomson
1985 National, Thomson, Cypress, USSR
1990 Cypress, IDT, Thomson, National, USSR
1995 Cyrpress, IDT, WSI, Thomson, Russia

Innovasic IA59032 – 8 x 2901 – 2003

AMD also made the AM29C101 which was 4 2901s in a single chip, producing a 16bit processor.  Cypress manufactured a copy of the 29C101 called the CY7C9101

Several other companies also designed multiple 2901s into a single chip. WSI (and later InnovASIC) designed the 59032, which has the equivalent of 8 2901s to form a 32 bit slice and the 59016 which was  16bit slice (4x 2901).  IDT designed the 49C402 which was also a 16 bit slicer.  Today the 2901 is still in wide use, and while not generally used for new designs, it still powers a vast amount of electronic equipment that still is in use.  InnovASIC still manufactures the 2901 (in 59032 form) to this day.

February 14th, 2011 ~ by admin

Processor News Round-up: More cores in more places

The last week has been filled with new processor announcements, mainly for phones, but cameras as well. (yes they run some powerful processors now too).

TI is barely shipping products with its dual-core OMAP 4 applications processor and has already announced its successor, the OMAP 5.  The OMAP 5 will be a 2GHz dual core ARM Cortex-A15 (the next ARM generation after the A9). It also includes a pair of ARM Cortex-M4 processor.  the Cortex-M4 is a 150-300MHz microcontroller oriented processor.  This will allow the OMAP 5 to run basic background tasks on the slower (lower power) cores while reserving the high power cores for tasks that actually need them, increasing battery life.

Broadcom continues its drive to enter the smart phone business with the BCM28150, a 1.1GHz dual core ARM Cortex-A9 compatible with Google Android.  In December they released the BCM2157, a 500MHz dual core ARM11 processor for low-end smart phones

Samsung decided to rename the Orion processor (announced back in November) to the Exynos 4210.  A bit of a mouthful compared to Orion.

Fujitsu MB91696AM

Qualcomm showed off the  APQ8060 in HP’s new TouchPad.  This is a dual core version  Snapdragon processor we have become very familiar with. Qualcomm has an architecture license from ARM so they are free to design their own cores without having to stick to ARMs own implementations (such as Cortex-A9 etc).  This gives Qualcomm more flexibility to design in features they need, and tweak design more best efficiency.

Smart phones aren’t the only ones getting new processors.  Digital cameras now require immense amount of processing power (especially to handle 1080p video recording.  Fujitsu (yah, they still make a lot of processors) announced the Milbeaut MB91696AM.  This is a dual core ARM processor with many other DSP functions capable of handling 14Mpixel shooting at 8fps, as well as full HD video.

February 8th, 2011 ~ by admin

Qualcomm for Apple: The iPhone 4 CDMA

After years of waiting Apple has released the CDMA version of the iPhone 4.  Obviously the first carrier that comes to mind with the CDMA iPhone (and who it is being released with) is Verizon.  However, the largest CDMA carrier in the world, with over 90 million subscribers, is China Telecom.  One can imagine this is also going to be a pretty good market for Apple. The design is relatively the same as the GSM version with one major change.  The baseband processor has been changed from an Infineon X-Gold 618 to a Qualcomm MDM6600.  This is a pretty big detriment to Intel, who purchased Infineon’s wireless unit just last year. You can see the specs of the GSM iPhone 4 here, as well as all previous iPhones.

Qualcomm MDM6600 - 512MHz ARM1136 - image: iFixit

The MDM6600 (Gobi) is actually a GSM/CDMA solution, but due to antenna limitation (is anyone surprised?) it is built for CDMA only.  Once again this is an ARM powered chip.  The MDM6600 main core is a 512MHz ARM1136JS.  The X-Gold 618 of the GSM iPhone 4 runs a 416MHz ARM1176.  The ARM1136 is roughly the same as the 1176 with a few features removed.

This is good news for Apple, and certainly good news for ARM as millions of more devices with ARM processor cores will be sold.  It will be interesting to see which baseband provider Apple selects for the iPhone 5 which should support 4G.

February 5th, 2011 ~ by admin

Atmel Buys MHS, Again – The Twisted History of Atmel, Temic and MHS

Today Atmel purchased MHS Electronics, a French company.  Why is this interesting? Because this is not the first time Atmel has bought MHS, in one form or another.  Atmel, Matra, MHS, and Temic’s histories are rather intertwined, with mergers, acquisitions and name changes occurring frequently over the last 25 years.

A Bit of History….

Atmel 4Mbit EPROM - 1995

Atmel was founded in 1984 by George Perlegos, a former Intel employee, as a fab-less semiconductor company.  Originally Atmel designed EPROM’s and PLDs.  They were manufactured by Sanyo, which had an Intel license.  Intel, however, sued Atmel (along with Hyundai, iCT, AAS, Cypress, and Pacesetter Electronics) over EPROM patents in 1987.  The courts sided with Intel which severely hampered Atmel’s ability to make EPROM’s.  Their focus then switched to non-volatile memories, such as Flash for which they have become very well known and continue to make.  In 1989 they bought their own fab (from Honeywell) in Colorado Springs, CO and in 1993 released an 8051 (Intel licensed) with integrated Flash memory.  This catapulted Atmel into the microcontroller market that is today one of their core businesses.  In 1994 Atmel Purchased SEEQ, an EPROM and EEPROM company that Perlegos helped start in 1981.  In 1995 Atmel opened a fab in Rousset, France, thus beginning the French connection.

Temic 80C32 - 1998

Temic had its beginning in 1903 as Telefunken (Ironically a joint venture of Siemens and another company).  In 1967 AEG merged with Telefunken and in 1985 Daimler-Benz bought Telefunken-AEG and renamed it to simply AEG. The semiconductor division of AEG was then called TEMIC (TElefunken MICroelectronics).  In 1998 AEG sold TEMIC to Vishay, another automotive electronics supplier.  Vishay only had interest in the discrete and power electronics portions so immediately sold the IC portion to Atmel. This gave Atmel a Bipolar fab in Germany

Matra Harris Semiconductors SA (MHS) was created in 1979 as a joint venture between Matra, the French high technology group, and Harris Semiconductor, an American semiconductor manufacturer. In 1989, Harris withdrew from the partnership, and the name was changed to Matra MHS SA. Two years later, AEG (The electronics division of Daimler-Benz) purchased 50% of Matra and merged the unit with its TEMIC Semiconductor subsidiary. In 1998, AEG purchased the remaining shares of the company and the name was changed again, to MHS SA.

MHS 80C52 - 1988

This was part of the sale to Vishay mentioned above, which Atmel then purchased.  MHS had one CMOS fab in Nantes, France which was included in the sale

Here is where it gets complicated…

The result of all of this was Atmel now owned Temic, MHS, 2 fabs in France, one in Germany, their original fab in Colorado as well as a fab in England, and one in Texas.  Atmel needed to consolidate their fabs so in 2005 they sold the MHS fab in Nantes France to Xbybus, a French company. Xbybus ran the Nantes fab as MHS Electronics.  In 2008 Atmel sold their fab in Germany (the former TEMIC fab) to Tejas semiconductor.  This left Atmel with one fab in Colorado, and one in Rousset, France.  Labor issues at the French fab in regards to Atmel’s need to reduce production led to indefinite strikes at this fab, hampering Atmel’s work to sell it.  Finally in 2010 Atmel received approval from the French gov’t to sell the fab to LFoundry, a French company.  This marked the end of Atmel’s fab presence in France…..

Telefunken U3870M CPU (Mostek Clone) - 1986

For about 9 months…

Today, Atmel has bought MHS Electronics, and their fab in Nantes, France, a fab they owned from 1998-2005.  MHS had been having financial troubles since 2008.  An interesting end to a series of event that began over 30 years ago.

I suspect though that we have not yet heard the last of MHS, or perhaps TEMIC.

February 2nd, 2011 ~ by admin

How many Commodore 64 computers were really sold?

Production numbers of vintage technology have always been a somewhat mysterious subject.  How many 4004 processors did Intel actually make? I am not even sure Intel knows.  Unlike modern car companies who can track production numbers down to the shift of the day it was made, computer companies of the 70′s and 80′s were rather fast and loose with record keeping.

Thankfully with some research, serial numbers and some math (the famous tank equation) Michael Steil of came up with what appears to be a very good estimate of Commodore 64 production.  12.5 million units, somewhat less then other numbers that have been thrown around, but backed by research and supported by math.  Read how he came to the conclusion here.

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February 1st, 2011 ~ by admin

Shrinking Process size Shrinking Foundry Selection

The processes used in manufacturing processors has been shrinking ever since the IC was invented.  In the 1970′s the common feature size was 10 microns.  Today many chips are made on a 22nm (0.022micron) process.  The cost of equipment to manufacture IC’s on such a small process has been increasing rapidly.  The cost of equipment goes up much higher then the the rate of process shrink.  Put another way, to half the process technology, equipments costs are significantly higher then merely double.

What this is causing is something that has happened, or is happening in most other mature industries.  Initially the technology is equally expensive, and accessible to each company, so many companies make the dive into it.  As the technoogy becomes more expensive, it becomes more exclusive.  A company must have the revenues (by having a very succesful product line) to afford the capital expenditures to move to the next technology.

This results in consolidation, many companies do not have the revenues to afford to upgrade their fabs; some companies start out knowing this and operate as a fab-less company, relying solely on contract foundries to make their parts.  In the 1970′s and even the 1980′s this was the exception.  Today, it is the rule.  IC companies simply cannot afford to keep a fab running at the latest tech level.

2011 Foundries by process technology

19 different foundries have 130nm capabilities, a process that was introduced in 2000.  This is a fine process for many applications but certainly not very useful for most low-power (such as mobile) applications.  At a 32mn process the number of foundries has dropped to only 6 with only 4 of those expected to hit 22nm this year.  TSMC is a pure play foundry, they make no products of their own, solely parts for other companies.  Globalfoundries is the foundry spinoff of AMD, and now operates much like TSMC.  Samsung does both, they make many products themselves (The Apple A4 processor being one of the better known products) as well as provide foundry services for other companies.  Intel recently started to experiment with working as a foundry, perhaps to take up any slack they may have in their fabs.  One particularly interesting note is that Japanese fabs have not been able, or willing to keep up with technology.  This may have to do with how fragmented that market was, and may change as more Japanese IC companies consolidate (such as Mitsubishi, Hitachi and NEC forming Renesas).

This trend will continue as technology advances and becomes more expensive to produce.  However, many products simply do not need to be made on the most advanced process. Your toaster oven is just fine with running ICs made on a 130nm process, and thats unlikely to change.  As long as there are 3-4 foundries on the leading edge, competition will keep driving advances in technology, and reductions in costs.