SoCs: Thirst for smarter devices

March 01, 2008

SoCs: Thirst for smarter devices

Every year the innovation behind Systems-on-Chip (SoCs) seems to make great strides forward.

Every year the innovation behind Systems-on-Chip (SoCs) seems to make great strides forward. Semiconductor manufacturers are laying down more transistors, enabling designers to make more complex systems. As Intellectual Property (IP) blocks keep emerging, designers are gaining a bigger bag of parts to select from. Meanwhile, tool designers are innovating better ways for more effective SoC development. All these factors are helping produce affordable devices finely tuned to the application they were designed to serve, opening doors for SoCs to be used in even more devices.

IP everywhere

By far the most frequently used core architectures embedded
in SoCs are the various ARM cores (see Figure 1). ARM Holdings (www.arm.com)
reports that its cores were used in 80 percent of processors in 2006, with the
highest growth projections in the automotive (39 percent), wireless (21
percent), and non-PC computing (23 percent) application segments. ARM has
become so prevalent that at the ARM Developers Conference in October, the
question, ìIs ARM becoming a commodity?î sparked a lively discussion during one
of the panel sessions. The panel members agreed that although pure cores were
showing signs of becoming a commodity, new innovation combined with proprietary
IP make many of the SoC devices that spin out of ARM cores unique to each
supplier.


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Figure 1: ARM core family

ARM CEO Warren East states that ARM growth is coming from
market penetration in embedded and automotive applications and from the market
evolution of smart phones and new multimedia products. ARM continues to develop
a core roadmap complemented by a large ecosystem that makes building an
ARM-based SoC very attractive.

Cores from MIPS Technologies, Inc. (www.MIPS.com) are also
used extensively in SoC designs (see Figure 2). One of MIPSí sweet spot market
segments is digital home entertainment. MIPS was in right place at the right
time when this market took off, offering middleware protocol stacks with cores
at the right price/performance ratio. A large supporting ecosystem that lowers
barriers to entry makes it easier to design in MIPS-based SoCs. Krishna Anne,
MIPS director of product marketing, notes that the 24K and 34K devices are most
commonly used in mass market production, while the lower-end 4K core is often
used in off-load engines for video, 2D/3D graphics, and protocol stacks.


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Figure 2: MIPS core family

Krishna points out that power efficiency is becoming a bigger
issue and reinforces the fact that it is important for MIPS to follow industry
standards such as Blu-Ray HD, HD Multimedia Interface (HDMI), USB, and the many
wireless protocols like 802.11 and WiMAX.

Motherboard-on-a-chip

Freescale Semiconductor (www.Freescale.com) has been in the
SoC business for as long as anyone can remember. Starting with highly
integrated parts like the HC08 and HC11, the company has carried the SoC
philosophy into most of its microprocessor lines over the years. In fact,
Freescaleís processors are so integrated that the company has started using the
term motherboard-on-chip to describe the
level of integration on its latest processors.

Imagine squeezing a PC motherboard with graphics and audio
cards, PCI, Ethernet, SATA, and USB into a device smaller than an iPod Nano.
Freescaleís MPC5121e mobileGT processor is a motherboard-on-a-chip device
designed to provide the embedded processing performance, on-chip peripherals,
and connectivity for Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC) platforms. The triple-core
architecture operates within a 2 W power envelope, virtually eliminating the
need for bulky heat sinks and noisy fans required by traditional PC
architectures. Integration to the level pushed by Freescale is introducing
opportunities to place electronics in new devices.

Enter the giant

The market for SoC devices has caught the eye of virtually
every microprocessor company. Intel (www.intel.com) has announced at least two
efforts to create Intel Architecture-compatible SoC processors, which are
expected to be available sometime this year.

At the Consumer Electronics Show this past January, Intel
president and CEO Paul Otellini announced an SoC code-named Canmore, a powerful
PC-class processor core with leading-edge, dedicated A/V processing that can
play 1080p video with 7.1 surround sound, a 3D graphics unit for user
interfaces and online games, and technologies to enable broadcast TV. Canmore
is Intelís first Intel Architecture-based SoC product optimized for a new
generation of set-top boxes, media players, and digital TVs. ìPackaging several
important functions – such as computing, graphics, and audio/video
processing – into a single chip will help devices do more while taking up
less space and energy,î Otellini asserts.

At the 2007 Hot Chips Symposium sponsored by the IEEE
Technical Committee on Microprocessors and Microcomputers, Intel laid out plans
for a second SoC code-named Tolapai. This SoC is targeted at a variety of
applications in the embedded, storage, and communications segments. Tolapai is
also Intel Architecture code-based, allowing it to run existing mainstream
Intel Architecture operating systems, drivers, and application software. It is
designed to operate in the 13-20 W range, depending on the application.

Bruce Fishbein, director of Tolapai silicon engineering
within Intelís Embedded and Communications Group, remarks that achieving the
high levels of integration in an SoC like Tolapai poses several challenges,
such as matching components that might not fit together because of different
manufacturing processes or interconnect buses. Reduced visibility into the
chipís internals because some buses are now within the chip makes it more
difficult to test during manufacturing and debug. In addition, quality levels
are expected to remain the same even though the device has additional internal
circuits. Defects per million levels are hard to maintain from a manufacturing
perspective.

Future products from the Intel Embedded and Communications
Group will be based on lower-power devices like Silverthorne. Intelís first two
SoC products promise to be the beginning of what is likely to be a very large
portfolio of SoCs for a wide variety of market segments.

Software Defined Silicon

David May, CTO and founder of XMOS Semiconductor (www.xmos.com),
says, ìWe estimate that the worldís universities are producing 20-30 software
designers for every hardware engineer. This shouldnít be a surprise since the
responsibility of product differentiation increasingly lies in the software
domain.î What this means is that software engineers will have a greater role in
developing SoCs. To that end, XMOS, a new player in the SoC game, has announced
a new class of programmable semiconductors tagged Software Defined Silicon
(SDS). SDS differs from existing technologies by taking an entirely software
approach to providing SoC configurability and programmability. Using small
processor arrays instead of large gate arrays, SDS reduces silicon area and
thus costs. SDS also has the benefit of software stacks that can run natively
on it.

Central to the XMOS technology is a compact, event-driven,
multithreaded processor called XCore. With up to 500 MIPS to share across up to
eight threads, the XCore engine implements a range of complex hardware
functions. Access to its computational and control capabilities is available
through a familiar embedded software design flow. Using C-based behavioral
languages, designers can quickly map whiteboard functional specifications into
silicon.

A bright future

The consumer thirst for more intelligent devices is driving
the future for SoC suppliers. Watch as fabless semiconductor manufacturers pump
out innovative products powered by more efficient, easier-to-use SoCs.

Jerry Gipper (Editorial Director)
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