Advanced SoC Interconnect IP

Best practices for enabling greater flexibility in an era of consolidation.

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By Kurt Shuler
I am thoroughly enjoying 2013. That’s because there seems to be a lot more reason for optimism this year than last year. But before we let go of 2012, it’s important to reflect on the past year and see what it can teach us so we can make better business decisions moving forward.

The one lesson learned is that flexibility for SoC designs is increasingly more important. In this new era, companies must be able to respond to dynamic and ever-changing market demands. The consolidation experienced in 2012 taught us this lesson well. Sales channels are more fluid than ever, and companies must proactively embrace changing industry demands. Furthermore, a professionally designed interconnect fabric will give chip designers the tools they need be more competitive.

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Consolidation in the market has contributed to the concentration shown in figure 1. Source GSA 2012

The consolidation we witnessed in 2012 means fewer players to battle it out, especially in the mobile-applications processor segment. At least two of the industry’s most vaunted products are gone. Fewer players are wielding greater influence in the high-end smartphone and tablet markets, and smaller players will need greater agility in their design strategies to capture emerging growth opportunities, as well as to introduce features that make them unique.

Flexibility is one of the greatest assets in competing for design wins. The largest players in the industry are gaining an advantage through the interconnect portions of their chips. Due to a growing complexity and greater number of IP blocks that need to be connected, designers are required to create extremely complicated products. Some of the most successful design teams in the industry have learned that their internally designed interconnects are inadequate to link all of the elements and get the peak performance that customers demand.

In 2013, many of the companies that once designed multiple SoCs to address the needs of a variety of different customers will migrate to a single platform strategy because of the rising costs of silicon. This single-platform approach requires greater options so that chips can be reconfigured on the fly to address multiple markets.

We’ve come to realize that companies need to redesign portions of their SoCs twice as often as they previously did. Consider the challenge this brings to the design team, as many are experiencing shrinking resources. Teams must have the ability to incorporate engineering change orders (ECOs) in as little as two weeks prior to RTL freeze. Last year we witnessed this with several of our customers. Late-breaking ECOs came first from the internal marketing team and then again from the system vendor. This required chip designers to use the interconnect fabric to incorporate elements into the SoC so that the chip was better suited to meet specific markets demand. The ability to make these last-minute changes resulted in a design that captured market share because they could now hit specific functions with the right mix of features, performance, cost and power consumption.

What designers need in this environment is an interconnect that decouples the IP from the interconnect. Designers will learn that once this is possible, they can start making incremental changes at an accelerated pace. This is a powerful capability for SoC designers who want to hit multiple design targets with a single SoC platform.

The limitations of in-house interconnect designs and bundled IP are becoming increasingly evident. A lack of flexibility in the late stages of a design, or the inability to use a single SoC platform to address multiple markets, has left some companies sitting on the sidelines while more nimble players reap the rewards.

While 2013 signals return to growth, it’s also important to remember that companies must think more strategically about SoC design. Agility and flexibility are required to differentiate companies from the competition because time to market combined with the right features are often the difference between success and failure.

Futher Reading:

  1. JB’s Circuit: Semiconductor Growth Turns Wireless
  2. IHS iSuppli: Wireless Leads Growth for OEM Semiconductor Spending in 2013
  3. Download our Springer technical paper “Application Driven Network on Chip Architecture Exploration & Refinement for a Complex SoC
  4. IHS iSuppli: Firm Sees Mixed IC Forecast — “The surge in popularity of smartphones and media tablets is driving healthy growth in the overall wireless semiconductor market segment in 2012 with a projected 7.7 percent expansion,” Ford said. “However, all of the other end markets for semiconductors will see revenues fall in 2012, negating all the positive effects of the wireless segment.”
  5. The Week In Review: Feb. 25 — Qualcomm dominated the LTE cell-phone modem market with a staggering 86% share in 2012, according to Forward Concepts. In total, Qualcomm shipped 47 million FDD-LTE cell-phone modems last year. Samsung followed with 9% of the shipments in 2012, while GCT Semiconductor managed to grab 3% of the market, primarily through LG handsets, according to the firm. Renesas Mobile and Nvidia-Icera each garnered 1% market shares.
  6. Smartphones Dial Up New RF Processes —  The mobile revolution is also having a profound impact on radio frequency (RF) designs, processes and packaging. For example, there were four frequency bands in 2G cellular networks and five or so for 3G. In comparison, the next-generation, 4G wireless standard known as long-term evolution (LTE), ultimately could support 43 bands at multiple frequencies.
  7. Consumer-driven mobile media devices, particularly smartphones and tablet computers, are forecast to keep the Tablet MPU (50%) and Cellphone Application MPU (28%) segments at the top of the growth list for the third consecutive year. Other IC categories that support mobile systems, including NAND flash (12%) and special-purpose logic devices, are expected to enjoy better-than-industry-average growth in 2013, as well.

—Kurt Shuler is vice president of marketing at Arteris.