SPERT-II takes an unusual approach to packaging the T0 processor - there is no package! Instead, the processor die is attached to the printed circuit board (PCB) using chip-on-board (COB) technology. The bare silicon is glued directly to the PCB, and wire bonds are made between circuit pads on the die and copper traces on the PCB. While COB has traditionally been used for mounting inexpensive semiconductors, such as in wristwatches and electronic greeting cards, ICSI engineer James Beck saw the potential for providing a high performance chip interconnect at a very attractive price. "COB gives us low inductance connections, which is particularly important for a chip with a 128-bit data bus," said Beck. The mounted die is coated with a silicone gel to provide protection from atmospheric contaminants and covered with a metal lid to protect the fragile bond wires and shield the circuitry from ambient light.
The use of COB for a die that is large and power-hungry with many off-chip connections stretches the limits of current PCB fabrication technology. One problem encountered was the tendency of the glue holding the PCB layers together to seep out over the T0 bond area during board fabrication. Another was the warping of fabricated boards during the repeated temperature cycling needed for the assembly process. It took the PCB manufacturers three attempts to successfully fabricate the first run of SPERT-II boards.
On May 1, 1995, eleven SPERT-II boards mounted with T0 die were returned to ICSI for a second round of testing to catch any defects introduced by the mounting process. This testing stage made use of a remarkable connector material developed by Fuji Polymer Industries. The material, Fujipoly, is a sheet plastic membrane that is only conductive through the short dimension. A test rig, custom engineered by Beck, provides pressure to squeeze a sandwich of a test connector, the Fujipoly and the SPERT-II board under test. The resulting connections allow the mounted die to be exercised using the special test circuitry built into each T0 without damaging the SPERT-II board.
To allow maximum flexibility, the SPERT-II board design has software programmable clock generators. The processor clock frequency and the timing of the phases within a memory access can be individually tweaked to allow different types of SRAM to be cycled at their maximum speed. The timing of communications between T0 and the Xilinx is also under software control to allow for adjustments due to delays within the reconfigurable part. Unfortunately, the clock generators are not completely independent and have limited resolution. Much of the first week of testing was spent carefully adjusting the clock parameters to find combinations that would work. ICSI software engineer David Johnson quickly put together a graphical tool to allow interactive manipulation of these various clocking parameters.
On June 9, the first program from external SRAM was successfully run on the SPERT-II board. On June 12, the first real application program was run: a complete neural net training of a speech net. The board was still only running at 15 MHz, whereas conservative timing analysis performed towards the end of the T0 design effort had predicted a maximum clock frequency of 33 MHz.
In subsequent days, as work proceeded on the Xilinx design and the settings of the clock generators, the attainable system clock speed rose dramatically. One of the SPERT-II boards had been built with smaller, faster SRAM parts especially to find the maximum processor speed. By the end of June, it was clear that the maximum T0 die speed had been found, a gratifying 46 MHz!
More impressively, during system test and bring up, and continuing through production use of the SPERT-II boards, not a single bug was found in the T0 processor design. This is a rare achievement for a die of this complexity, and pays tribute to the diligence of the T0 design team of Krste Asanovic, Brian Kingsbury and Bertrand Irissou.
Mid-August saw another important milestone: the first public presentation of T0 at the Hot Chips VII conference held at Stanford University. Hot Chips is renowned as a showcase for leading industry microprocessors, and T0 was presented alongside processors such as Sun's UltraSPARC, HP's PA-8000, and MIPS' R10000.
Today, the first SPERT-II systems are in daily production use at ICSI. The primary intended application for SPERT-II systems is error backpropagation training of neural networks for use in speech recognition. Performance measurements show speedups of as much as 20 times over extensively tuned code running on a Sparcstation-20/61 workstation, and as much as 5 times over a high-end IBM RS/6000-590 workstation. It is interesting to note that the processor cores on these two workstations respectively contain 4.5 and 33 times as many transistors as T0, and are clocked 1.5 to 2 times as fast. Planned improvements to the T0 code and SPERT-II I/O subsystem are expected to further increase performance on this code.
There has been strong demand for SPERT-II systems, and a second production run of 22 SPERT-II systems is underway using the first batch of T0 die. These will be installed at eight locations across Europe and the USA, principally at sites collaborating in speech recognition research with the Realization Group.
To meet future demand, a shrink of the T0 design to a newer, submicron process technology is under consideration. The shrink would reduce the cost per die, and should also allow a significant boost in clock speed while reducing power consumption.
While the hardware side of the SPERT project winds down, the software support effort has only just begun. "A zero bug processor is a hard act to follow," bemoaned David Johnson as he frantically tested yet another T0 library routine.
Find out more about T0 and SPERT-II follow links from the T0 home page at the URL http://www.icsi.berkeley.edu/real/spert/t0-intro.html.