November 14th, 2017 ~ by admin

CPU of the Day: Fairchild F9445: The MicroFlame Flames Out

Fairchild 9445DM – 1983 Military Temp Range

In the 1970’s many companies began to make processors based on mainframe architectures of the time. Data General with the creation of the mN601 MicroNova, TI with the TMS9900, DEC with the LSI-11 and others.  This set the stage for a pretty large showdown, as what happens when a company other then the original mainframe company creates a processor that is compatible?  This is what began to happen in the late 1970’s, and with the release of Fairchild F9440 MICROFLAME.  We’ll quote directly from the F9440 datasheet “Though structurally different from the CPUs of the Data General NOVA line of minicomputers, the 9440 offers comparable performance and executes the same instruction set.”  Specifically the bi-polar F9440 could

DGC mN602E – MicroNova – Data Generals Own single chip Nova

run most the code from the very popular Data General Nova 2 computer system.  Obviously, as Fairchild states, it is structurally different, as its Fairchilds own hardware LSI implementation.  The idea that an instruction set could be copyrighted was already being tested, and by all appearances at the time it was assumed that an Instruction set, could not be copyrighted.  This certainly helped in the wide adoption late on of x86.  A different way of protecting computer architectures had to be created then.

The first salvo was fired by Data General, in a lawsuit claiming that Fairchild’s F9440 enticed DG users to break their software license agreements.  DG’s way of ensuring they had control of their customers was to add a section in the software license agreement that the software could ONLY be ran on Data General hardware, even if it COULD run on a Fairchild F9440 (or any other hardware) it was a violation of the license to do so.  In 1978 Fairchild counter-sued, claiming that such a license was anti-competitive and seeking $10 Million in damages as a result of DG’s original suit.

9445 DIe shot (partial)

To add fuel to the fire, Fairchild announced the F9445, the MICROFLAME II.  The F9445 was built with the same I3L (Isoplanar Integrated Injection Logic) technology but on a 2-Micron process instead of the 3-Micron process of the 9440 and contained over 5000 gates.  The F9445 could was compatible with the Nova 3 and Fairchild claimed it would be 10 times faster then the Nova 3.   The F9445 was announced in 1978 but development issues (this was one of the largest, fastest bi-polar designs) took some time and led to many delays. In 1979 Fairchild, low on cash, was purchased by  Schlumberger Limited, an oil field services company, for $425 million (Exxon responded by buying Zilog in 1980).  Production of the F9445 finally began in the first half of 1981, with deliveries beginning late in the year.  Initial devices ran at 16MHz (an increase from 12MHz in the original 9440) and 20 and 24MHz versions were released later.  The F9445 required a single +5VDC supply and a 300mA current supply dissipating about 1.5W (compared to 1W for the 9440).  The MICROFLAME II was aptly named, they ran rather hot (not unusual for their technology though). Like the F9440 the 9445 is a 16-bit processor and could directly address 128K of memory.  It adds a stack pointer and hardware multiply, while retaining the same 50 instructions from the 9440 but increases the addressing modes supported from 8 to 11 (needed to emulate the Nova 3).

Fairchild F9450-15DC – MIL-STD-1750A processor based on the architecture of the F9445

Interestingly the F9445 provided the base for another Fairchild processor.  The F9445 took Nova instructions, decoded them and ran them on its hardware, it was, in other words, a micro-coded processor.  Microcoded processors can be useful as the microcode can be changed to support an entirely different instruction set. That’s exactly what Fairchild did with the F9450, a processor designed to execute the just released MIL-STD-1750A 16-bit instruction set.

Data General was not pleased, so again sued, claiming that Fairchild probably stole proprietary information in order to design the F9445.  Fairchild was not alone in the action as their were other companies who made Nova emulating hardware, as well as those who made software that would run on a Nova.  The lawsuits (no less then 11 of them) continued well into the 1980’s.  By 1986 Data General was struggling, the case continued, and was not going in their favor.  In September of 1986, a month before the trial for damages was to begin, Data General settled, paying Fairchild $52.5 million.  Eight years after the fireworks began, the original F9440 MICROFLAME had not been made in years, the Nova 2 and Nova 3 were no longer made as well.  The lawsuits destined the F9440 and the F9445 to failure, but they made their mark in setting precedent in lock-in, and how Instruction Sets can be used.

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June 8th, 2013 ~ by admin

CPU of the Day: Fairchild F8 Microprocessor

Mostek MK3850P-3 - F8 Processor - 1977

Mostek MK3850P-3 – F8 Processor – 1977

In September 1974 Fairchild Camera and Instrument’s Fairchild Semiconductor division announced they were throwing their hat into the microcontroller market.  The same Fairchild whom created ‘Silicon Valley’ whom many of the ‘greats’ of the industry originally worked, including Gordon Moore, and Robert Noyce, of Intel fame.   In April 1975 Fairchild began sampling the F8 processor with production quantities available in the fall of 1975.

Fairchild knew the importance of having second sources available and in June 1975 reached an agreement with Mostek to allow Mostek to produce the F8 as well.  The 10 year agreement with Mostek included complete mask set transfers as Mosteks NMOS isoplanar process was completely compatible with Fairchilds.  The agreement also called for continuing development of the F8 processor system, allowing each company to develop F8 products independently of each other as well as together (this is important down the road).

Fairchild 3850PC - 1977

Fairchild 3850PC – 1977

Mostek was able to rapidly produce the F8 system, faster, cheaper, and more reliable than Fairchild.  The F8 introduction price was $130 per unit.  When Mostek began production in 1975 prices were down to $85 per unit.  In February 1976 Mostek lowered prices to $55 per unit ($64 to $28 if you bought more than 100 pieces).  The F8 was also licensed to SGS-Ates of Italy in 1976.

Also in February of 1976 Fairchild signed a agreement with Olympia Werke A.G., a German company, allowing production and sharing of information on the F8 processor.  It also allowed Fairchild (and any of its second sources, including Mostek) to use any of Olympia’s processor technology and products. So why did Fairchild reach such an agreement with Olympia, a relatively small company?  Because General Instruments was suing Fairchild at the time.

AEG Telefunken U3870M - F8 Processor

AEG Telefunken U3870M – F8 Processor

It gets a little messy here but try to follow along. A man named Dr David Chung (head of GI’s microprocessor division) was dispatched to Olympia to pick up some proprietary information on a top secret 8-bit processor Olympia was developing called the C3PF.  GI had an agreement to license this processor technology from Olympia and it was Chung’s job to get the information to make that possible.  Very shortly after Chung’s return from Germany he quit GI.  Who hired him? Fairchild of course.  GI accused Fairchild (and Chung) of using the proprietary information on the C3PF to develop the F8 processor.  By reaching an agreement with Olympia, Fairchild now was legally covered if in fact they HAD used information on the C3PF in the design of the F8.  Unfortunately very little information exists on the C3PF but it is widely believed that it was the basis of the Fairchild F8.  The court case went on into the 1980’s by which time it didn’t really matter.  I was unable to determine who ‘won’ but by production dates of the F8, it didn’t matter one way or another.

So what about the processor?
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October 5th, 2012 ~ by admin

CPU of the Day: Fairchild F9450 – Commercial Military

Fairchild F9450 – 1985 – 10MHz

In 1980 the United States Air Force published a standard for a 16-bit Instruction Set Architecture (ISA) to meet their needs for computers on fighters etc.  This standard is known as MIL-STD-1750A and laid out what the processor needed to be able to do, but not how, or what would be used to accomplish it.  This allowed manufacturers to implement the standard in anyway they wanted.  It could be done in CMOS, Bipolar, SoS, GaAs or even ECL.  It was designed (like the Signetics 8X300 and the Ferranti F100) with real time processing in mind, similar to what we would call a DSP today.

Many companies made 1750A compatible processors including Honeywell, Performance Semiconductor (now Pyramid), Bendix (Allied), Fairchild, McDonnell Douglas, and others.  The processors ended up finding uses in many things outside of the USAF, including many satellites and spacecraft including the Mars Global Surveyor.  The standard was not restricted to military use, in fact commercializing it was encouraged, as this would increase production, which would help decrease costs for the military.

Fairchild designed the F9450 to meet both the commercial, and military markets.  Initial availability was in 1985 and the F9450 provides an on-board floating point unit, an optional, second chip, on other implementations.  Fairchild also made a F9451 MMU (Memory Management Unit), and a F9452 BPU (Block Protection Unit).  The 9450 was manufactured in a bipolar process (Fairchild called it I3L for Isoplanar Integrated Injection Logic).  This helped boost speed, as well as greatly increased reliability, as bipolar is much less susceptible to higher radiation levels then CMOS is.  Bipolar processes also generate heat, lots of it and to help counter this Fairchild used a somewhat unusual (for a processor) ceramic package made of Beryllium Oxide (BeO).  BeO has a higher thermal conductivity than any other non-metal except diamond, and actually exceeds that of some metals. Normally the ceramic on a CPU package is some form of Alumina (Al2O3).  Beryllium itself is a carcinogen so grinding, or acid application on BeO is not recommended.  The bottom of the the 9450 was made with a different ceramic, as the goal was to get the heat away from the chip, and not back into the PCB.  9450s were available in speeds of 10, 15 and 20MHz and in Commercial, or Military temperature rating.  MIL-STD-883 screening was of course available.

By 1996 the 1750A architecture was declared inactive and not recommended for new designs.  However, due to its extensive software support, reliability, and familiarity, it enjoys continued use, and is still being manufactured by several companies.

April 25th, 2011 ~ by admin

50 Years ago today: The IC was Patented

On April 25th, 1961 Robert Noyce, then working at Farichild Semiconductor, received Patent 2,981,877 SEMICONDUCTOR DEVICE-AND-LEAD STRUCTURE.  This was the patent for how to make integrated circuits, containing multiple silicon based transistors, on a single die.  Six months prior Jack Kilby received a similar patent, but for geranium based devices.  Silicon became, for a variety of reasons, the preferred material and 50 years later we now use some of the same principles to build IC’s with over a billion transistors on them. The diagram in the patent showed a device with 8 components on a single doe, 1 transistor, 2 diodes, 2 capacitors, and 3 resistors.

In 1968 Noyce, and Gordon Moore (of Moore’s Law fame) left Fairchild and founded Intel. Fairchild Semiconductor was the ‘incubator’ of many such semiconductor companies, Intersil, Teledyne, Xicor and AMD were all founded by former Fairchild employees