Harvard graduate student Wonyoung Kim has developed and demonstrated a new device with the potential to reduce the power usage of modern processing chips. The advance could allow the creation of "smarter" smartphones, slimmer laptops, and more energy-friendly data centers.
Kim's on-chip, multi-core voltage regulator (MCVR) addresses what amounts to a mismatch between power supply and demand. Essentially a DC-DC converter, the MCVR can take a 2.4-volt input and scale it down to voltages ranging from 0.4 to 1.4V. Built for speed, it can increase or decrease the output by 1V in under 20 nanoseconds.
The MCVR can also be used with an algorithm in development at Harvard to recognize parts of the processor that are not in use and cut power to them, saving energy. Kim says it results in a longer battery life (or, in the case of stationary data centers, lower energy bills), while providing the same performance.
The on-chip design means that the power supply can be managed not just for each processor chip, but for each individual core on the chip. The short distance that signals then have to travel between the voltage regulator and the cores allows power scaling to happen quickly—in a matter of nanoseconds rather than microseconds—further improving efficiency.
Kim has obtained a provisional patent for the MCVR with his Ph.D. co-advisers at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Gu-Yeon Wei, Gordon McKay Professor of Electrical Engineering, and David Brooks, Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science.
"Wonyoung Kim's research takes an important step towards a higher level of integration for future chips," says Wei. "Systems today rely on off-chip, board-level voltage regulators that are bulky and slow. Integrating the voltage regulator along with the IC chip to which it supplies power not only reduces board-level size and cost, but also opens up exciting opportunities to improve energy efficiency."
"Kim's three-level design overcomes issues that hamper traditional buck and switch-capacitor converters by merging good attributes of both into a single structure," adds Brooks. "We believe research on integrated voltage regulators like Kim's will be an essential component of future computing devices where energy-efficient performance and low cost are in demand."
Although Kim estimates that the greatest demand for the MCVR right now could be in the market for mobile phones, the device would also have applications in other computing scenarios. Used in laptops, the MCVR might reduce the heat output of the processor, which is currently one barrier to making slimmer notebooks. In stationary scenarios, the rising cost of powering servers of ever-increasing speed and capacity could be reduced.
"This is a plug-and-play device in the sense that it can be easily incorporated into the design of processor chips," says Kim. "Including the MCVR on a chip would add about 10 percent to the manufacturing cost, but with the potential for 20 percent or more in power savings."