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The story of Jim Keller and his pioneering work on chip design and structure

The story of Jim Keller and his pioneering work on chip design and structure

2023-08-05 07:18:16

Who’s Jim Keller? AMD’s former CTO Fred Weber famously known as him the Forrest Gump of the chip business, in response to the Fortune story “Why Intel is betting its chips on microprocessor mastermind Jim Keller.” From x86 to PowerPC and MIPS to Arm, Keller has bought his palms clear at nearly each chip structure and is genuinely a chip design celebrity.

Keller is within the information for being appointed CTO of Tenstorrent, a fabless AI chip design and software program firm. Whereas that’s making waves within the commerce media for Keller’s wealthy observe report in chip design for heavyweights like AMD, Apple, and Intel, it’s price his pioneering work in chip architectures spanning throughout three many years.

Design simplification is on the coronary heart of the chip architectures created by veteran CPU developer Jim Keller. Supply: Intel

Keller’s storied profession as a CPU design guru started in 1984 when he joined Digital Gear Corp. (DEC), the mini-computer pioneer and a tech titan of its period. He was a part of the engineering crew that designed DEC’s ultra-fast Alpha chip focused at workstations that had been one step increased to PCs within the IT meals chain. Alpha—launched in 1992—ran at 500 MHz with a reminiscence cache that hit 1 GHz, a pace unheard at the moment.

Nevertheless, DEC was constructing the quickest computer systems and going out of enterprise on the identical time. Its mini-computers had been turning into out of date whereas PCs and servers bought quicker and extra highly effective at a a lot decrease value. So, in 1998, when the Alpha structure was bought to PC maker Compaq together with most components of DEC, Keller joined AMD, the x86 chipmaker establishing itself as a second supply to Intel.

Keller had seen how Alpha chips confronted extinction from Intel’s Pentium Pro processors, which in contrast to their predecessors that ran extremely complicated instruction units, shortly translated instruction units to less complicated chunks. Keller’s different commentary concerning x86 chips: bottlenecks between a processor and different computing components like reminiscence. That turned the hallmark of his subsequent work at AMD.

The start of system-on-chip

The system-on-chip (SoC) design motion has many pioneers, and Keller is certainly one of them. He got here to AMD with the concept of integrating the processor with separate items reminiscent of reminiscence and knowledge switch. AMD put to make use of such concepts to the K8 chips that ultimately disrupted the market management of Intel’s 64-bit Itanium chips and supplied AMD with a foothold within the extremely worthwhile server market.

Right here, it’s price mentioning that AMD’s flamboyant chief Jerry Sanders was in opposition to getting into the server market as a result of an absence of assets to assist the server design ecosystem. Nevertheless, Keller’s simplified method to chip design overcame a lot of those hurdles, and subsequently, AMD launched the K8 chips with the official identify of Opteron in 2003. Keller additionally co-authored the HyperTransport specification for the interconnection of server processors.

Keller, nevertheless, had left AMD in 1999 when K8 chips had been nonetheless within the earlier section of improvement, this time to affix a chip startup co-founded by his comrade from the Alpha chip design, Dan Dobberpuhl. SiByte was growing MIPS-based community processors, and Keller joined this little-known upstart based by former DEC engineers as chief architect.

Creation of dual-core designs

At SiByte, Keller pioneered the concept of dual-core designs, which positioned two processors facet by facet on the identical piece of silicon. A yr later, in 2000, Broadcom acquired SiByte for $2 billion in inventory and commenced transport the dual-core chips in routers to maneuver round big quantities of knowledge. Finally, later within the decade, dual-core processors would discover their approach into PCs.

Then, in 2004, Keller leaped to a different Dobberpuhl startup, P.A. Semi, which centered on PowerPC-based chips for high-end PCs and servers. Nevertheless, he moved to Apple to work on Arm-based chips that Samsung designed for iPhones two years earlier than Apple acquired P.A. Semi to design its personal chips for iPhones and iPads.

Apple’s buy of P.A. Semi in 2008 saved the corporate billions of {dollars} whereas Keller sharpened the iPhone chips for smoother graphics and quicker speech and picture processing. He as soon as known as his work at Apple akin to intense engineering and favored working with Apple’s feisty chief Steve Jobs.

Subsequent, in 2012, Keller was able to put his new insights to work at his outdated employer AMD as chief cores architect. AMD was lagging far behind Intel at the moment whereas its developments in PC processor design had been slowing down. He laid the groundwork for AMD’s turnaround with the design of Zen micro-architecture.

Once more, by the point Ryzen chips—drawn from Keller’s design work—had been launched in 2017 and began gaining share from Intel, he had already moved on, this time to electrical automobile maker Tesla.

Chip for self-driving vehicles

The following twist in Keller’s exceptional profession as a chip architect got here in 2015 after a gathering with Tesla’s Elon Musk. Tesla had been utilizing chips from Mobileye, now a part of Intel, and Nvidia for its driver-assistance system known as Autopilot, and the carmaker wasn’t completely happy.

Keller was capable of persuade Musk that Tesla ought to design its personal chip, and in return, Musk reportedly persuaded Keller that he was the precise man to spearhead this formidable job. Keller simplified the chip design as per Tesla’s software program, and inside two years, the in-house chip was able to be integrated into Tesla’s Sequence 3 and different fashions to be launched in 2019.

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In the meantime, Keller was prepared for his subsequent problem at Intel, now desperately in search of engineering assist after a number of strategic missteps like lacking the cell and desk sockets at Apple. In April 2018, the rock star chip designer joined Intel as VP of the Silicon Engineering Group, however then abruptly left the Santa Clara-based chip behemoth in June 2020.

Now the chip design legend has joined a fabless AI chipmaker that’s a part of the rating of AI upstarts centered on coaching and inference purposes. Will he be capable to make a distinction this time round? His profile in pioneering work and celebrated observe report is certainly excellent news for Tenstorrent.

Majeed Ahmad, Editor-in-Chief of EDN, has lined the electronics design business for greater than twenty years.

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