Processor is the heart of a system, and almost all functions depend on the processor. In embedded system, due to the narrow application level, it is more important to consider the variables such as efficiency, power consumption and cost. Among them, the authorization scheme affects the cost of development and the time to market, Therefore, we need to be more cautious.
In all kinds of embedded applications, there is no lack of one or more processor cores to co-ordinate the operation of the whole system. However, the architecture of the processor core is complex, and the relevant design concepts must have accumulated technical strength for many years before they can be realized. In the current enterprise concept of OEM, it is hard and thankless to develop the processor independently, Not only can it not bring immediate revenue, but the huge amount of money spent in the development process is more likely to lead to the company’s losses. As a result, key OEM cities such as Taiwan manufacturers have reserved much of their development in this field, which also brings pure IP licensing (there is no wafer factory, and they do not produce chips, Only by the circuit design architecture and other pure intellectual property authorized profit-making companies) processor companies have great business opportunities.
The type of processor IP license has been around for many years. Recently, it is facing more and more competition challenges
IP is defined as a pre designed circuit module architecture that can be used to manufacture complete semiconductor components. In the past, most IP providers only provided IP authorization for specific applications, such as general purpose processors, MCU cores, and even display cores. There were few cases in which a single manufacturer provided a variety of different types of IP services. However, with the diversification of embedded applications, the functional modules required for terminal product design are becoming more and more complex, and the simple functional application is obviously not enough.
Taking digital TV as an example, in addition to the processor core, it also needs to include video / audio decoding IP, signal conversion IP, such as card reader, IP of HDCP encryption and decryption system, graphic interface, real-time operating system, general standard interface (including USB, input / output interface, etc.), and it is not easy for manufacturers to obtain these IP at the same time, In addition, the leading manufacturers in the specific market keep their own IP, and only produce supporting chips for manufacturers to choose, so the proportion of processor IP is becoming less and less obvious.
Delta diagram: the latest generation of processor core of arm is also moving towards the similar PC platform processor, with increasing frequency as the means to improve performance, the power consumption is also gradually increasing
In addition to the increasing number of IP package service providers for specific applications, even IP providers for traditional embedded processors such as arm have begun to offer more and more IP types for choice. Recently, they even launched IP based display cores, and are gradually moving towards configurable design, In order to provide downstream manufacturers with greater flexibility. Configurable design is also regarded as the biggest niche and selling point by some IP manufacturers. For example, arc and Tensilica both provide the most flexible adjustable solutions on the market. The advantage of adjustable processors is that they can design SOC chips with the highest function uniqueness and the simplest circuit (depending on the required functions).
Delta diagram: the adjustable architecture of arc has high application flexibility.
Select the essential items of IP authorization
IP licensing is not a very new concept. As early as the end of last century, companies that survive in the form of IP licensing have begun to flourish. After 2007, mobile products began to have more stringent requirements in terms of function, performance and power consumption. In addition to the manufacturers who have been working in this field, several processor manufacturers who did not regard embedded applications as their own industry also began to join the battlefield. Although IP licensing manufacturers and processor manufacturers are facing more and more competition and challenges, the application products for embedded applications will only continue to grow. Therefore, although the competition is becoming more and more fierce, But there is still room for survival.
In terms of whether to use IP authorization to build its own embedded system, it is necessary to consider from many aspects
Requirements for processing capacity
Because the processor core must shoulder the operation or function load distribution of the whole system, it must have certain requirements in terms of performance. For example, in mobile multimedia devices, the processor must shoulder the requirements of OS and video coding and decoding. If the pure software coding and decoding scheme is adopted, the processor core must have high frequency and strong operation performance (DMIPS), Otherwise, the processor design with hybrid computing architecture should be considered. For example, the general processor core with DSP core and specific vector acceleration unit can easily afford this kind of work. If you don’t want to spend too much time on algorithm optimization, you can also choose to use the module designed by hardware circuit to match with specific processor IP, In theory, cost and efficiency can be taken into account, but in this way, application flexibility will be lost.
Third party resources and development tools
For specific products, this can be said to be quite important or not. If manufacturers pay attention to the presentation of their own functions and prefer closed architecture design rather than open architecture design, then there is no need to worry about the support of third-party manufacturers or communities. If they aim at open platforms, such as general smart phones, PDAs, etc, Support in this respect may become one of the most important considerations for consumers in purchasing.
The ability of IP authorized manufacturer to provide program code
Because terminal manufacturers do not necessarily have complete software development capability, and in order to shorten the time from product design to market, IP manufacturers are urgently required to provide program codes that meet certain requirements in quantity and quality for application, so as to play the function of hardware suite. If IP manufacturers only provide hardware core, the software must be provided by semiconductor design manufacturers, Even if the terminal manufacturers solve the problem by themselves, they have to spend extra time learning processor architecture, software development, debugging and optimization, which is not only lack of timeliness, but also a heavy burden on the cost.
■ backward compatibility of the platform
In addition to considering energy dissipation, power consumption and functions, the development of embedded processor will also be one of the key considerations for developers. After all, the accumulation of software resources is not easy. If we want to relearn and invest in resource development, the cost will be very huge, even far beyond the burden of developers, Therefore, the processor IP itself should pay special attention to the support of system and instruction set. In addition to the introduction of new functions, the processor IP developers usually provide nearly 100% past compatibility in the new generation of product manufacturers.
In addition to the above items, whether the IP provider itself has enough stability and scalability is also the key point of evaluation. Stability refers to whether the manufacturer has the strength of continuous operation, whether the product line changes too fast, whether the support work is continuous, and so on, while scalability refers to the future planning, software development, software development of IP products The development environment is perfect and so on. Since IP authorization is adopted, the authorization means and authorization cost are also the most important points. It is not that the cheaper the better, nor that the more expensive the more secure it is. In addition to whether the IP architecture to be authorized meets the requirements and whether the packages provided by the manufacturer are complete, whether the above requirements can be met will be the dividing point between the authorization fee and the IP value for money, value for money or not.
IP authorization structure
Let’s take the authorization mode of arm company as an example to understand the mode and structure of IP authorization. Generally speaking, the authorization methods of arm can be divided into architecture authorization, application authorization, single use design authorization and so on. For the authorized party, arm provides the hardware description of the core part of the processor, including the complete software development tools (compiler, debugger, development kit), as well as the sales right for ARM processor. If fabless manufacturers want to add the arm processor core to their self-developed chips, they usually only need to obtain a production ready IP core certification. At this time, arm will provide the gate circuit diagram of the selected ARM core of these manufacturers, as well as abstract simulation test and related test procedures, To assist design integration and validation.
If it is an integrated component manufacturer (IDM) or a semiconductor manufacturer, it can obtain IP in the form of RTL. Through the integrated RTL, the manufacturer can further strengthen the architecture. IDM or semiconductor manufacturers are not allowed to sell the optimized processor IP twice, but can arbitrarily market their final products (including chips, development samples, complete systems, etc.).
Some special Fabs can not only obtain the right to sell the final products, but also retain the right to remake the arm core. And just like the general IP licensing manufacturers, arm also determines the price of its IP according to the value of use. Under normal circumstances, the higher the efficiency of the architecture, the higher the licensing fee. The fabs (such as Samsung of Korea and Fujitsu of Japan) with arm license and the ability to design their own chips can license the fabs to their OEM customers twice. Generally, the price is lower than that of directly authorizing to arm. However, in the case of output as the main consideration, the fabs will be able to re license the fabs to their OEM customers, Specialized Fabs (such as TSMC) actually have more powerful cost reduction capabilities.
Coordination mechanism of multi IP integration
Due to the division of labor in IC industry, the IP required by a SoC chip is usually developed by many manufacturers in the market. Complexity is the biggest problem in the intellectual property rights of SOC. However, the negotiation of IP rights licensing contracts with IP owners one by one is likely to be limited by the imbalance of negotiation power between the two parties, and they may not be able to obtain the same range of rights for different IPs on the same SOC, which may inadvertently exceed the scope of authorization. However, if manufacturers choose to develop their own IP, first of all, they may not be able to complete it professionally. Secondly, the development cost of processor architecture from scratch is obviously too high, which is not in line with economic benefits. Therefore, it is an inevitable trend to coordinate and integrate IP among related operators. Furthermore, it is obvious that the problems related to IP component intellectual property rights licensing contract, IP component defect liability attribution, infringement and so on are the problems that we have to face when we are optimistic about the growth of embedded market applications including SOC.
As mentioned above, since more than one IP may be used on a chip, the proportion of the cost of processor IP is gradually decreasing. Although it still plays an important role in the chip, the matching with other IP is inevitable. How to integrate all kinds of IP owned by different companies will be a problem that SOC related businesses must face and deal with, From the perspective of industrial division of labor, there are several types of coordinators to coordinate and integrate IP authorization
■ manufacturer of information products
It is inevitable that information products must use SOC chips. In addition to seeking authorization, they may also develop their own products. As such manufacturers are SOC terminal manufacturers, they must directly face the rapid changes in market demand. They have a considerable demand for IP integration in order to cope with such changes. They are one of the candidates for coordination and integration.
■ IC design house
In order to shorten the design time, it is inevitable for design house to use other people’s IP components when designing chips. Integrating IP can simplify the process of authorization, obtain a unified scope of authorization, avoid the doubt of infringement, and reduce the cost of self-development. If design house can integrate the IP market, it can use the basic IP module as the basis for product diversification.
■ IP vendor
IP vender’s business is to authorize the IP developed by it to be used by others. The coordination and integration of IP can make it occupy a favorable market position, improve its IP licensing opportunities, and combine other people’s IP to launch integrated IP package to obtain more profits. Such companies are represented by arm, MIPs, arc, etc. in the process of development, in order to obtain the necessary technology or IP in other fields, IP companies usually purchase and merge other types of IP design companies in the market, so as to obtain the required IP and enhance their competitiveness.
■ foundry plant
In addition to the process improvement, professional Fabs also actively provide standard IP blocks for their customers to use, and handle the issue of authorization and payment of royalty on behalf of customers. For fabs, if they can integrate the IP market, it will be more helpful for their business expansion.
In the current situation, it is difficult for a single IP to have a strong point in the market. Even if other companies have technical advantages that are difficult to compare with them, if other companies can provide supporting solutions including EDA manufacturers, IC chip manufacturers, solution companies / ODM, and system manufacturers, even if they have a certain technical disadvantage, But in the development process, production, marketing and other aspects, when it can have absolute advantages, it can also form enough attraction, so that developers can choose at ease. A single IP provider, such as the mainland Loongson, can not have enough market competitiveness in this respect. Although in the mainland market, developers can be convinced to adopt the Loongson scheme through national consciousness or political influence, if it is to be implemented all over the world, I am afraid there are still shortcomings.
Delta illustration: Intel’s first mobile application processor A100 / A110 with IA architecture, its power efficiency ratio is directly to arm system
Shortly after its establishment, arm company found a foothold because of the neglect of embedded applications by large semiconductor manufacturers such as Intel. At that time, it was a kind of risk for the company to invest in this field. After all, there was no lesson from the past in the market. However, after the establishment of its positioning and profit model, its huge profits not only demonstrated the success of the company, At the same time, it also aroused a wave of IP industry in the market. However, as other backward companies gradually invest in the field of processor IP licensing, even Intel and AMD, the two “traditional” processor manufacturers, are scrambling to invest in the embedded application fields that originally arm excels in, including mobile devices. IP companies such as arm, whose main business and technology are based on processor technology, have begun to see bottlenecks, They began to seek further development in other directions.
In 2006, the scale of IP licensing industry reached 2.6 billion US dollars, but these scales were contributed by hundreds of IP companies. It can be predicted that there will be a big reshuffle in the near future. If you want to operate IP licensing industry for a long time, you can’t only rely on exclusive core technology. A single company providing more diversified supporting solutions will be a necessary means to improve competitiveness. Therefore, the integration of homogeneous or heterogeneous IP companies to create a large scale of intelligent property economy, and further cooperation with TSMC, liandian, franchised and other chip generation plants, will be the key to fight against such big companies as Intel, which not only have unique advantages, have diversified technologies, but also have a huge semiconductor factory camp.
Editor in charge: GT