SoC to SoP

A reflection of moore’s law, personal history and coming Tsunami of Systems

This blog was prompted by Pat Gelsinger in his recent keynote talking about Systems on Package (SOP). That brought memories of Systems on a Chip (SoC) – back to Circa 1991. While this term is common in the lingua franca of chip nerds these days, it was not the case back in 1991. Perhaps one of the first SoCs on the planet was one in which I was lucky to be involved with that also helped bootstrap my professional life in Silicon and Systems. It was Microsparc-I (aka Tsunami) while at Sun and that had a few firsts. All CMOS, first SoC and had a TAB package. All-in-one.

Image result from
MicroSPARC – 1 in a TAB package (Circa 1991)

This chip was in the system. Good to know its in the computer history museum archives.


The label Sun 386i was a joke. Used to have Sun 386i platform and the joke was, this was faster and cheaper than any PC then.

MicroSPARC-1 on the board

That was the beginning of my semiconductor run in my professional life. It started with an ECL machine for SPARC we did back in 1987-1990, which got shelved eventually as it was going to be hard to manufacture and sustain volume production. Some of us without a job, were asked to work on a ‘low cost’ SPARC and work with TI on their 0.8uM CMOS process. While the rage then was BiCMOS (SuperSPARC for Sun) and Intel Pentium. It showed Intel despite being a tech and manufacturing power house, has made mistakes in the past, not just recently…We will come to that

The First SoC (Microprocessor SoC) had many firsts back in 1991.

  1. It was all CMOS (when BiCMOS and ECL were still ruling the roost
  2. It was all integrated (Integer Unit, Floating Point Unit, Icache, Dcache, MMU/TLBs, DRAM controller (SDRAM) and Sbus Controller (Pre PCI).
  3. It was in 0.8 uM CMOS (TI) and in a TAB package (as seen above)
  4. It was entirely Software driven tool chain – the physical layout was done with Mentor GDT tools – programmatically assemble the entire chip form basic standard cells and GDT P&R tools, Synopsys synthesis, Verilog. All SW driven Silicon – A first. There is a reference to it here. This led to the entire EDA industry rallying around the way Sun designed microprocessors and a whole sleuth of companies formed around that (Synopsys, Ambit, Pearl, CCT->Cadence and many many more).
  5. It was the beginning of the low cost workstation (and server) – approach $1000 and ‘fastest’ from a clock rage (MHz – when that was the primary performance driver in the early years).
  6. From 1991 through 2003 by the time I left Sun, was involved in 8 different generations/versions of SPARC chips and looking back, the Sun platform/Canvas not only helped me be part of the team that changed the microprocessor landscape, we changed the EDA industry and by late 1990s brought ODM manufacturing to traditional vertically integrated companies to completely outsource systems manufacturing.

A visual of the height of Moore’s law growth and the success I rode with that Tsunami (Co-incidently the first chip for me was named Tsunami). From 0.8 uM 2LM CMOS to 0.65uM 10 LM CMOS. From 50 MHz to 2 GHz, 0.8M xtors to 500M xtors.

1991-1994 – Microsparc – The first CMOS SoC Microprocessor that extended Sun workstations and servers to the ‘low end’ and drove technology leadership with EDA companies named above in driving many ‘SW driven VLSI’. We built the chip with the following philosophy ‘construct by correction’ vs ‘correct by construction’ – which was the prevailing methodology. In modern parlance of Cloud – its DevOps vs ITops.

1995-1998 – UltraSPARC II and IIe – With the introduction of 64 bit computing, we continued to lead both on architectural performance (IPC), semiconductor technology (lead CMOS @ TI along with IBM until Intel took control of that by 1998), Clock Rate and many system level innovation (at Scale Symmetric Multi-processor, glue-less SMP at low cost, Media instructions). This was the Ultra family of compute infrastructure that was the backbone of the internet until the dot-com bust (2001-2003)!

1998-2001 – UltraSPARC I & E series: Created 2 product families and both drove new business ($1B+) for Sun. The Telco/Compact PCI business went form $0 to $1B in no time, the extension of workstations and servers to $1K and glue-less SMP (4-way) for <$20K, another industry first. The beginning of NUMA issues and pre-cursor to the dawn of the multi-core era. UltraSPARC IIi (codenamed Jalapeno) was the highest lifetime volume CPU for the entire lifetime of SPARC.

Clock Rate (SPARC vs x86)

While clock rate is not a good representation of actual device technology improvements, its the best first order relative metric I can share here given the dated history. Suffice it to say as you can see, until 1998 we had good technology (CMOS) FOM improvements per node until 0.18uM (Intel coppertone), when Intel decided to boost its performance by 60% when the industry average was 30%. That was the beginning of the end on two fronts – Sun + TI having enough capital and skills to keep up with the tech treadmill against Intel (althought we introduced copper for metal ahead of Intel) and the decision to start shifting architecture from pure IPC and clock to multi-core threading. Recognizing this, I started the multi-core effort around Circa 1998, but it took another 5 years to bear fruit. I digress.

As a side note: Look at Intel technology improvement performance lately. I would never have in my wildest imaginations thought this would happen.

2001-2003 – Dawn of Multi-core and threading: While the results of these happened in 2001-2003, the seeds of this were sown in both multi-core in the form of dual core UltraSPARC IIe and eventually Niagara (UltraSPARC T Series).

The next 10 Year years is going to be as dramatic as the 1990s for completely different reasons at the system level. While Moore’s law has slowed down, the SoP is an important and critical technology shift to enable one to keep up the effective Moore curve. With Moore you got performance, power and cost at the same time./ We won’t get all three, but we can strive 2 out of 3 – i.e. Performance at constant cost or power.

SoP (Systems on Package) is an important milestone and glad to see Intel leading that and so is AMD and rest – but this can be a compelling way to construct the new system. In the next blog we will explore why the next 10 years is going be disruptive at the system level, but SoP like SoC and CMOS+Moore law was the Tsunami wave that raised a lot of boats including my career, many companies success and changed the industry and computing stack in a fundamental way.

I expect many firsts or changes or disruptions from design methodology to now customization by customer of various heterogenous silicon components (CPU, IPU, FPGA, memory elements and a lot more). Associated with that will be tools to assemble this, but also tools to make these look like one monolithic’ fungible computing element to the end user.

Virtualization to-date has been dominated by leveraging multi-core and improving utilization by spawning of many VMs that subdivide the machine into smaller chunks. New software layers either above or below the standard frameworks like Lambda (Server-less), PyTorch/TF (ML/AI) or Crypto will drive new ways to effectively use the dramatic increase in total silicon real estate including tiering of memory, scheduling code chunks to accelerators in coherent space (via CXL), new intra-rack and intra-node connectivity models via CXL and many more to come. Strap in for that ride/discussion. HW is getting more disaggregated from aggregation that started back in 1991 via SoC to now with SoP , Software will have to do the ‘aggregation’.

As I signoff, will share some more images from the 25 year anniversary of SPARC is captured here in this montage below.

wrong tool

You are finite. Zathras is finite. This is wrong tool.

----- Thinking Path -------

"knowledge speaks but wisdom listens" Jimi Hendrix.

The Daily Post

The Art and Craft of Blogging News

The latest news on and the WordPress community.

%d bloggers like this: