Atoms, ARMs, ARCs, Andes…And All The Rest

The race for the Internet of Things is just getting started. Who ultimately wins is anyone’s guess, but there are some new contenders.


There was a time when nobody believed Intel processors would be replaced with any other device. Intel commanded the processor market. Rich Wawrzyniak, senior analyst for ASIC SoC at Semico Research, noted this was not always the case. In the early days of the PC there were many contenders and most people thought that Motorola would win because they had more money behind them. Ultimately, Intel had the better, more scalable solution and it became dominant.

Then along came a small IP company from England. It had a smaller, lower-power core that could be embedded into other people’s chips. Intel was unfazed as the market it was targeting—mobile—clearly was not very interesting. It took a long time before the name ARM became a name that people recognized, but today the ARM name, in mobile, is as strong as the Intel name is for PCs. And more recently, ARM has started making strides into the server market.

While Intel is now attempting a push into the embedded area, it remains to be seen if even mighty Intel has enough clout to unseat the incumbent. Intel not only needs new cores, which it has, but it also needs to transform itself into an IP company, a move that may be more difficult than core development itself.

This battle is in the domain of what is called apps processors. These processors run the end-user applications and they may get all of the attention, but there are many other processors in your phone, PC or other electronic device. The graphics processor takes up more room, consumes more power and some claim that it actually adds more differentiation to the end product than the apps processor. But we rarely hear about who makes that processor.

And then there are several processors that are collectively known as the embedded processors. A PC contains a dozen or more embedded processors, and there are several inside each smart phone. These processors power the Wi-Fi, audio subsystem, modems and other communications devices, manage the sensors and perform many other tasks that we don’t think about on a day-to-day basis. The processing system for wireless communications often contains a complex heterogeneous multicore combination of CPUs, DSPs and custom accelerators.

The embedded processor market is a lot more crowded. While ARM participates in this market with its low-end cores, there is also ARC from Synopsys, Tensilica from Cadence, as well as many others. And now there is a new company that wants to join the fray, one that comes from across the other pond. Founded in 2005 in the Hsinchu Science Park, Taiwan, Andes has been quietly serving the Asian semiconductor industry with a range of cores that it touts as being smaller and lower power than ARM’s.


Reproduced with permission from the Linley Group.

Linley Gwennap, president of The Linley Group, says that the apps processor market was 1.1 billion units in 2012 and ARM held a 99% share of this. The total CPU IP market was 11.8 billion. Based on these numbers, it means that ARM has a 65% share of the embedded market.

A look at the newcomer
Andes claims 50 licensees, 60 partners, and 250 million devices with its cores embedded in them. Some of them, such as MediaTek, would not be a surprise. MediaTek is listed as an investor in the company. Some 80% of Andes’ current customers are in Taiwan, and the other 20% are in China. The company recently added two customers from South Korea, as well. Gartner listed Andes at 48 on its list of intellectual property providers, with $4.5 million in 2011 revenues.

One architectural feature of the Andes cores is an intermixing of 16 and 32 instructions, which it claims provides better code size, performance and power. The company also has taken a leaf out of the Tensilica (Cadence) and ARC (Synopsys) book by having instructions extensions that can be tailored toward application needs. Other performance-boosting features include a dynamic branch predictor, the ability to combine multiple memory requests into a single burst, and a priority-based preemptive vector interrupt controller.


Architecture and features of the Andes N13 core

While many of the benchmark performance figures are of questionable value, they do show that the N1337 core manufactured in the TSMC 40nm process is roughly equivalent to an ARM Cortex A5, but with slightly smaller size. Andes claims .077mW/MHz compared to .12mW/MHz for the ARM core. Synopsys has recently announced a new core in its ARC line of processor IP that utilizes its second-generation architecture. At the high end Synopsys claims up to 1.9 DMIPS/MHz, 3.4 CoreMark/MHz and clock rates up to 1.6GHz. At the low end, with the ARC EM family, it claims 4µW/MHz.

The new market
The Internet of Things adds another dimension to the unique demands placed on processors, and the unit numbers are much higher than for the mobile markets. Each person owns just a few PCs and smart phones, but there are likely to be hundreds or thousands of devices that each person interacts with when we consider the Internet of Things (IoT). These things, many of them intelligent sensors, will be in your clothes, in your car, your home and your appliances. For many of these devices, cost and power are the ultimate design considerations. Cost is critical because they have to be priced at just a few dollars per device, and power is important because they may have to operate on power they scavenge from their environment or have a requirement to operate for several years on a single battery. There are a myriad of other issues that may influence the selection decision, such as configurability, code density, company size, stability and reputation, and the production libraries supported.

Can a new processor become the name associated with the next wave of Internet connected devices? Wawrzyniak believes it’s possible. He said the notion of using your smart phone to be the aggregator and controller for all of the devices in the house doesn’t fly with him. “I could be away on a business trip,” Wawrzyniak said. “Do you really want everything in your house pinging your phone every 10 seconds with new data?”

If there is going to be a centralized data aggregator then it likely will have apps that can be downloaded onto it. While the sensors and devices at the periphery may remain in the same obscurity that embedded processors do today, there is indeed an opportunity for a new apps processor. He believes that ARM is well placed, but it is not a slam dunk. ARM recently announced a survey it sponsored. It was conducted by the Economist and entitled, “The Internet of Things Business Index: A Quiet Revolution Gathers Pace” The survey looked at industry perceptions about the IoT.

Wawrzyniak cautions that security must be thought about very hard. “Suppose you have a neighbor who doesn’t like you. Do you want them being able to turn on your sprinklers while you are away, or turn off your heating so that your pipes burst?” These are just some of the scenarios and many relate specifically to a home networking kind of IoT. Other markets may have very different needs and concerns.

Derek Meyer, a processor and semiconductor IP consultant who has spent time working with many processor and IP companies, said the embedded market currently is dominated by the 8051. The 8051 is small (2,000 or more gates depending on options) power frugal (around 1mA), has the highest volume shipment for any processor (about 2B units in 2007) and is cheap (often less than 1c). The Linley group numbers agree with this, showing that the market for 8-bit CPUs is both growing in numbers and as a percentage of the total market. What about those who need more than 8 bits? There is the Microchip PIC series, which contain 16-bit versions and have shipped more than 7 billion units. But Meyer suggested that many companies are likely to skip over 16 and go straight to 32 bits when 8 is no longer sufficient. The Linley figures bear this out. While 32-bit CPUs have almost doubled in the past four years, 16-bit processors have shrunk by a third.

Who is winning the race to be the dominant processors for the IoT? Well it appears as if Intel may have given away a crown jewel because it developed the 8051 instruction set back in 1980, and Microchip has the largest market share to lose. Today, ARM is well in the lead in the IP market, but because the IoT domain is still emerging there could be room for a new contender. Perhaps we will see companies become dominant in vertical markets, such as automotive or industrial control, where domain expertise will have value.

We already are seeing a trend toward this with some companies focusing on areas such as automotive or industrial. These areas have a lot of regulations, and becoming a trusted supplier creates a significant barrier to entry. Another approach being taken is to create higher-level IP, or subsystems. These are a pre-integrated and verified collection of blocks that perform a complete function. Synopsys has been releasing a number of these in the past year, such as its new sensor IP sub-system that has an ARC processor in the core (For more information about sensor management and fusion, see Sensory Overload).

Wawrzyniak also noted another trend in his recent market study “The IP Subsystem Market: Evolution Continues and Momentum Builds” that subsystems are being created that are extensible. An example comes from Analog Bits, which just announced a secure IP subsystem comprising secure sensors, secure SerDes and secure clocking. This has been designed to increase a chip’s resistance to hacking and malicious attack by incorporating crystal-less oscillator technology, on-die sensors, real-time loggers and other unique features.

There are many opportunities for new companies, new business models and new ways of packaging IP that target these emerging markets. While there are frontrunners today, the race is just getting started.

Related Research
Semico: The IP Subsystem Market: Evolution Continues and Momentum Builds
The Linley Group: A Guide to CPU Cores and Processor IP

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