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What Defines Analog Integration & Why We Should Applaud Its Benefits

It's well publicized that the pattern of microprocessor development (as predicted by Moore's Law) has delivered many benefits and advancements to our modern world — namely, very practical and powerful products at affordable prices. For example, quad-core processors used in smartphones enable ubiquitous connectivity in a mobile device that's more than 150,000 times the price-performance of the 1982 Osborne Executive Portable. In the medical world, an ultra-low-power microcontroller used in the telehealth fitness shirt improves patient monitoring and enables a new way of delivering preventive medical care. The list goes on, but what about the benefits of analog integration?

It's my opinion that the benefits of analog integration are not widely publicized and applauded. We, the analog design community at large, deserve a pat on the back. The considerable benefits of analog integration can be seen in consumer and medical devices, as well as industrial and communications equipment. In the consumer space, smartphones would never realize a thin profile, light weight, and long battery life if not for dense analog integration centered on all the critical power-management functions.

Without analog integration, designers would be forced to use a collection of discrete switching regulators, linear regulators, battery charging circuits, and other power-related circuits. Instead, smartphone designers use a single power-management integrated circuit (PMIC) that delivers high-efficiency power conversion, integrates up to 35 analog functions in one device, and saves up to 200mm2 of space. Analog integration is equally important to enable the audio, touch screen, and gesture-recognition functions on a modern smartphone.

In the broadband communications segment, the RF transmitter signal chain is another example where analog integration has dramatically impacted size, power, performance, and cost. Here a single, ultra-high-speed, high-dynamic-performance DAC, a.k.a. RF-DAC, is able to synthesize the entire 1GHz downstream cable TV band. Or it can synthesize directly from bits to RF a multi-standard, multi-carrier cellular band from 700MHz to 2.6GHz.

To do either of these jobs, it once took several channels of high-speed DACs, multiple analog modulators, and handfuls of reconstruction filter components with associated performance hurdles. Now these discrete components can all be replaced with a single mixed-signal device taking advantage of direct digital synthesis techniques. Here the benefit of analog integration is a lower-cost and higher-performance radio solution that also has a significant environmental impact in terms of network energy savings and CO2 reduction.

Only 5-6 years ago, the practicality of software-defined radio was a RF system architect's dream. Now it's becoming reality. Is this divergence from the conventional RF transmitter architecture still considered a form of analog integration? I say yes.

This leads to the question “How is analog integration defined?” Does a simple device that integrates an op-amp, comparator, and reference qualify as analog integration? Maybe. Or does a slightly more complex device qualify as analog integration, such as a microprocessor supervisory circuit that integrates a voltage monitor, watchdog timer, battery switchover, RAM-gating, and reset output timer? More likely. If a single mixed-signal device enables a disruptive architectural change, like the direct conversion of bits to RF with a single RF-DAC, is it considered a form of analog integration? Heck, yeah, this is a new paradigm in analog integration.

What are some other examples of disruptive architectural changes enabled by IC innovation?

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11 comments on “What Defines Analog Integration & Why We Should Applaud Its Benefits

  1. DEREK.KOONCE
    June 12, 2013

    Just the mention of my old college computer brings back memories: modems, BBS use, etc. The integration that has taken place is largely due to the shrinking of the transistor. So long as the transistor can be shrunk and other technological improvements such as 3D ICs, etc, I see more integration of analog. Then pull in the digital parts to mate with the IC. Continued improvement.

  2. bjcoppa
    June 12, 2013

    Many analog IC companies are ramping up their RF device product portfolio including Freescale, International Rectifier, TI and TriQuint. More companies are evaluating GaN for both high-power and high-frequency devices. Even aerospace contractors such as Northrup Grumman are developing new RF chips for military applications. More companies are transitioning from GaAs to GaN such as RFMD.

  3. Brad Albing
    June 12, 2013

    Damian – regarding your mention of the RF:  Here a single, ultra-high-speed, high-dynamic-performance DAC, a.k.a. RF-DAC, is able to synthesize the entire 1GHz downstream cable TV band. Or it can synthesize directly from bits to RF a multi-standard, multi-carrier cellular band from 700MHz to 2.6GHz . I've always found this quite interesting and I'm guessing other readers do too. Can you expand upon that portion of your blog with any more details? How much of these circuit blocks that your referring too can actually be integrated onto one IC?

  4. eafpres
    June 12, 2013

    Hi Damian.  Thanks for the examples.  On the other side of SDR (software defined radio) there remains the challenge of antennas.  In handsets, some work has been done in controllable antennas that use various techniques such as active matching, PIN diode switching, MEMS switching, etc. to retune the antenna for different bands. These solutions help but it seems the Analog RFIC state of the art is beyond the antenna state of the art.  In mobile devices that may not be a show stopper, but it would be a large enabler if there were controllable high-gain antennas in sync with the RFIC you describe.  Such an accomplishment would mean a fully software-defined base station would be achievable.

  5. Damian Anzaldo
    June 13, 2013

    @eafpres

    For mobile and portable products aside from multi-band tuning, antenna advancements are also very important for MIMO-based radios like LTE, HSPA+ and 802.11n/ac. For example to take full advantage of 2×2 or 4×4 MIMO as specified in LTE-Advanced, it would be great to support 4 miniature antennas in the mobile device. I agree the RFIC advancements are beyond the antenna state of art, but I'm confident antenna design will catch up with IC trends.

    In base stations there are active antennas systems (AAS) and active antenna arrays (AAA) that approach the enablers you describe. Another hurdle to overcome is wideband and multi-band RF power amplifiers that are power efficient with high spectral purity. This will help with carrier aggregation in LTE base stations.

  6. Damian Anzaldo
    June 13, 2013

    @Brad

    The RF-DAC creates a strange paradigm in the analog integration roadmap because it actually enables more digital integration by shifting some of the analog RF functions, like the analog quadrature modulator, into the digital domain. This changes the type of analog integration from a traditional approach of “integrate more building blocks” to what I call “radical architecture divergence” or RAD for short. Because of this I believe the RF-DAC is a form of analog integration. I'll write a new blog to cover this topic and answer your questions in more detail

  7. Netcrawl
    June 13, 2013

    DAC is getting more attention these days, outpacing all other data converter product categories. Research firm Databeans has already forecasts the data coverter market to grow double between 2011 and 2015, the firm expect the DAC market to grow more than 60 percent. So what exactly driving this growth? it look like DAC is on fire, unstoppable. 

     

     

  8. Davidled
    June 13, 2013

    Qualcomm is a supplier of CDMA chipsets and RF chipset.  When they build library function inside chip, I am wondering if they are using the same spec with that of carrier provider.  Still they need to standard all requirements between chip maker and carrier.

  9. Davidled
    June 13, 2013

    Every year, IEEE RFIC Symposium is held and also, there are active for Wireless technology in the global market. Through this conference, they discuss the various architectures of wireless infrastructure. RF Engineer evaluates Over-The-Air Performance of RF device to show the variants between good and bad wireless device.  So, I think that all accessories related to wireless tech have a bright future.

  10. Brad Albing
    June 24, 2013

    @Damian – perhaps you can blog sometime about AAS and AAA? Active antennas should be of interest to readers here.

  11. Damian Anzaldo
    June 25, 2013

    Sure…I'll move this up in my priority list

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