Silicon CMOS chips are at the heart of every modern computing device from the smallest Internet-of-Things (IoT) device to the largest supercomputer.Unfortunately, undergraduate students currently do not have any opportunity to actually go through the process of fully specifying, designing, implementing, testing, fabricating, and evaluating a computer chip. Undergraduates leave Cornell thinking that fabricating computer chips is only possible at huge companies like Intel, AMD, NVIDIA, and Apple. Until recently, there was no realistic hands-on way for students to experience the complete computer chip design process. At the same time, exposing students to the beauty of computer chip design has never been more important, since the slowing of CMOS technology scaling means computer system designers must increasingly rely on specialized computer chips for continued improvements in performance and/or energy efficiency.
How can students (from freshmen to seniors) gain hands-on computer chip design experience? The answer lies in the recent explosion in open-source chip design tools, open-source chip implementations, open-source process design kits, and low-cost computer chip fabrication services. Just as open-source software has democratized software design, open-source hardware is poised to democratized hardware design.
The Cornell Custom Silicon Systems (C2S2) Project Team is a new project team funded through the Shen Fund for Social Impact. We leverage this emerging open-source hardware ecosystem to enable undergraduate students to specify, design, implement, test, fabricate, and evaluate custom computer chips. The final outcome will be a custom computer chip integrated on a custom circuit board with a complete software stack targeting an important application domain (e.g., ultra-low-power digital agriculture IoT). This ambitious student-led team is likely unique across US universities, and will shopefully inspire a new generation of computer system designers.