Poles build world's fastest chip (for a 1980s standard, that is)

Poland's answer to ARM is keeping the flame alive for a line of chips that Intel abandoned long ago.

Digital Core Design (DCD), a chip designer from the Polish town of Bytom, claims it has drawn up the fastest 8051 IP (Intellectual Property) Core on the market.

The idea behind IP Core is that a company licenses a design of a processor core to a third party. In practice, it means a technology company would put in an order at a company such as DCD, which then designs a core. The tailor-made specifications are then given to the client, who can then use it in its own technology – anything from USB drives to mobile phone SIM cards, as well as dedicated applications for medical and military use. In that sense, the business model for DCD (which has only a staff of ten) has similarities with that of UK chip designer ARM .

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Specifically, DCD specialises in producing chips according to Intel's 8051 specifications, which was first developed in 1980. Even though the 8051 model has been discontinued by Intel about five years ago, the demand for such chips is still immense, says Jacek Hanke, DCD's CEO.

"The death of 8051 has been announced for 10 to 20 years now," he says. "But still, there still appears to be a need everywhere. It is one of the most popular microcontrollers in the history of electronics." According to Hanke, this has to do with the fact the 8051 has been a staple in lectures, which means everyone with a degree in electronics has worked with them. "Most of them continue to work with it during their careers, because they are so familiar with it. There are a large number of tools available and it is quite user-friendly."

While true CPUs and GPUs tend to take all the credit, Hanke says much of the actual work within IT equipment and electronics is done by 8051 style chips. "They are basically the workhorses, where the CPU is the shiny new car," he illustrates. The engineers do need some preparation though, internal work takes up to two years during which they can act as an assistant to a main designer.

In its most recent announcement (which was timed specifically for the CeBIT trade show earlier this month), the company claims it had developed the 'fastest 8051 chip in the world'. The company says it has redesigned the 8051 principle with its DQ80251. "We only took the instruction set, to keep it compatible with the original," says Hanke. "The architecture has been redone."

The result is that it can execute 66 times more operations when working at the same clock frequencies as the original 8051, while the frequency itself can be cranked up by a factor of 30 compared to its forefather. While that might not seem so impressive given that it was a design from the 1980s, the technology for this kind of chip is not subject to Moore's Law: the speed gain is wholly due to changing the architecture, instead of just adding transistors. "During benchmark tests, any operations that would take our solution one second, the original would take over half an hour," Hanke says.

Of course, that's not to say that that's where the bottleneck is when storing large amounts of data on a USB drive. While Hanke can't quantify the time gain in actual use, he says there will be a marked improvement in performance when, for example, storing data. "Also, when using a standard controller, the software freely available and can be downloaded by a third party. With ours, this is not the case. Any solution can be hidden in the software, making reverse engineering the technology of our customers a lot harder."