Jernberg PI
DC Analysis: Keeping PDN Running Smoothly (Not So Easy Anymore)
Many new products need tighter hardware.
TWO COMPELLING FORCES driving much of our technology – miniaturization and performance – are not new. In fact, one could say they have appeared within every product spec and design document in some form or another since the terms were coined. Fundamentally, this has enabled capability and portability with products in virtually every hardware sector. This will (and should) continue. In the area of miniaturization, both board and package are transforming as technologies such as rigid-flex, blind/buried vias, and multi-die packages move from fringe to mainstream. Further, performance improvements maintain the well-known doubling trajectory and are propelled forward by orders of magnitude in speed, while increasing efficiency and extending battery life. Often these gains are continually achievable only by reducing the voltage swing to under a volt. As miniaturization and performance drive devices to new functionalities and applications, the effects of these requirements are visible throughout the design process. Nowhere is this drive for smaller, faster, cheaper more noticeable than in power.

Power demands outpacing supply. To comprehend the extent of the power delivery network (PDN) transformation, consider the following. Design requirements associated with power delivery have become substantially more complex, with many ICs requiring power to be supplied at multiple voltage levels. Frequently those levels are near or below a single volt, contracting virtually every threshold and reducing margins to mere millivolts. Simultaneously, demand for current has skyrocketed in some product areas, made obvious by the extent to which we now account for adequate cooling. In addition to these increased electrical demands, the PDN must also be more responsive, capable of supplying the instantaneous current demands of high-speed signaling. While all this may suggest a more robust PDN is needed, as many new products reach manufacturing, often the opposite is true. Not surprisingly, the miniaturization effort has had a consolidating effect on the physical hardware, frequently bringing high-current ICs closer together (FIGURE 1). Advances in device packaging have contributed as well. Pin counts can easily exceed a thousand on a single package, and mainstream spacing under a millimeter contributes to the same reality: The PDN is comprised of less copper in today’s PCB than it was just a few years ago.

Multiple power planes
Figure 1. Multiple power planes have become the norm.
Controlling the PDN from the start. Recognizing this is a trajectory where power delivery will become problematic, and conceding that for some designs it already has, progressive product development teams are looking to power integrity simulation for answers. We’ll see in subsequent columns several elaborate interactions attributable to the power system, such as complications with “the return path” and the ability to shield and control EMI, but first we need to ensure adequate capacity and effective distribution. Commonly referred to as the “DC” branch of power integrity, its primary task is to guarantee sufficient current sources at a steady voltage. The PDN must provide a conductive path such that current leaving the supply does not experience so much resistive loss the voltage can’t be maintained when the device is drawing its maximum current. It is essentially an Ohm’s law problem. By understanding a device’s operating voltage and maximum current draw are defined by its specification, we quickly see PDN resistance is the only design element in which a product team has any control. Signal integrity has taught us the physics associated with current flow and electrical conduction are very predictable. We recall that with knowledge of the materials and conductor geometry, accurate/predictive characterization of electrical behavior can be determined. Mathematically, power integrity, aka PI or PDN simulation, has many similarities with its signal integrity roots. What is strikingly different, however, is the actual copper under examination and the current being conducted. Contrast the wide copper-flooded areas (to include entire planes) associated with power routing with the thin line of a signal trace, and we’d naturally expect the resistance to current flow would be much different. Likewise, consider the short bursts of current we see when digital signals switch, first in one direction and then the other, and compare those to the steady drain, source to load, we see for power signals. Therefore, the physics of conduction are the same, but the signals conducted are very different, requiring different types of analysis and methodologies to meet our power delivery goals and demands (FIGURE 2).
Red and Blue graph
Figure 2. IR drop vs. current density.
DC aka distribution and capacity. As noted, our DC goals for power delivery, or PDN, can be broadly defined as distribution and capacity. Distribution implies all devices, even those farthest from the supply, have access to adequate current at the defined voltage. Similarly, under extreme demand, capacity ensures the power system can maintain that voltage, even when current draw reaches its allowable maximum. If the voltage supplied at every device doesn’t droop below the acceptable value, we can have great confidence that even if each device needs to draw its most aggressive current, the power delivery network is capable of distributing adequate current to all devices.

Solving for V. The DC capability associated with power integrity simulation requires only two things: an accounting of load and resistance. An accounting of load is simply how many devices are being supplied and how much current each device requires. Cumulatively, this is the “I” in our Ohm’s law (V = I x R) reference, while “R” is resistance. We know from previous discussion simulators routinely calculate resistance, even impedance (“complex resistance”), given only the materials and geometry contained in their CAD databases; this is exactly the case with power integrity. Often accessible directly from within the PCB CAD tools, PI simulators can readily identify conditions where a chip could become “power starved,” but it doesn’t stop there. Because the tools create a model of the board, all the properties (voltage, current and resistance) can be displayed as color-coded overlays directly on the board’s etch. This enables both visualization of a problem and an environment where corrections can be made in the native CAD tool and be reflected in the design file. While not specifically addressing Power DC issues (one of distribution/capacity), these additional overlays are useful for identifying other concerns associated with power as well. Areas of high current density, which could result in both EMI defects and reliability issues, can be easily detected and prevented, as the simulators produce an intuitive, visual model of the power network.

Moving up a level of abstraction. Power integrity DC simulators exist from a number of vendors and have universally proved accurate. This is largely due to the extensive studies on copper conduction for the RF and high-speed digital industries. While traditionally this type of analysis has been done at the layout and routing phase of the PCB, it is increasingly apparent analysis needs to move up a level of abstraction to incorporate earlier system-level, power budgeting and inspection (FIGURE 3). In this analysis, for example, a DC-to-DC convertor’s dual role would be recognized, both as a load to the main supply net and the origin (supply) of the power net produced at its output. Leveraging the PCB model as a Spice model, external circuit elements such as switches, resistors and transistors can be included, permitting simulation of the system itself. Extending system-level checks to include device Spice models extends both the checking and display capability beyond individual nets to the system. This enables “sizing” and capacity checks to encompass device selection and verification, in addition to the checks performed on the etch alone.

Power design
Figure 3. Power design is a hierarchical problem. Source: Sigrity Power Tree.
PDN pressure is not going away. Although the technologies that will drive product direction in any hardware sector cannot be predicted, it’s safe to say there is little desire for bigger, slower, less-efficient anything. Therefore, miniaturization and performance will continue to be prominent, and they have their sights on all that “extra power plane copper.”

Will you be ready?

Terry Jernberg posing for photo
Terry Jernberg
is an applications engineer with EMA Design Automation (, with a focus on PCB design and simulation. He spent his early career on signal integrity simulation for the defense industry and was fundamental in the adoption of these tools at EMC and Bose. A vocal advocate for simulation, his enthusiasm for physical modeling has expanded to include power and thermal capabilities.