Integrated IP Goes Vertical

Large IP vendors develop more complete solutions for specific markets; startups launch with goal of organizing IP

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By Ed Sperling
The consolidation of intellectual property from small developers to large players with integrated IP blocks is accelerating. Large IP companies are now developing integrated suites that are pre-tested for specific vertical markets, and new companies are sprouting up to make it easier to put even broader collections of IP together in meaningful ways.

It’s difficult to tell whether the trend is being driven more by the IP vendors or pulled through by chip developers looking to cut costs—or whether it builds upon the stamp of approval by foundries for certain pieces of IP. The net effect, however, is the creation of subsystems and partial platforms that are one step below reference platforms.

“A reference design suggests a complete solution,” said Eric Schorn, vice president of marketing for ARM’s processor division. “Customers don’t want us to go that far. But we are moving in a segment-oriented fashion. That’s the reason we bought a graphics processor company. We are making a processor along with a graphics socket for mobile phones and set-top boxes.”

The company isn’t alone in recognizing the opportunity for putting together more pieces of IP in very specific ways. Virage Logic’s recent acquisitions of ARC and NXP’s IP unit have positioned it to lead with integrated subsystems in markets such as high-performance audio and video.

“You have to have a reference platform these days,” said Yankin Tenurhan, vice president and general manager of Virage’s ARC business unit. “That’s not much different from the good old days of silicon, though, when you needed a complete solution and a full blown prototype. Philips, NXP, Texas Instruments and ST all have demonstrator chips for whatever you want on a cell phone. The same is happening in the IP world.”

Putting together the pieces
It’s not just the IP vendors that are putting together suites of IP. Two startups are focused on making IP easier to understand and integrate. Parallel Engines, which emerged from stealth mode this week, is focused on organizing IP by data mining pertinent information about everything from power requirements to the interfaces and interconnects.

“There are 12,000 pieces of IP out there, including 8,000 pieces of hard IP that are made by about 50 companies and about 4,000 pieces of soft IP,” said George Janac, CEO of Parallel Engines. “The hard IP is already in FPGAs from companies like Actel, Xilinx and Altera. You just need the soft IP to make it work.”

Somewhat conveniently, Janac’s brother, Charlie, is the CEO of Arteris, which makes network on chip technology that can be used to glue together these IP blocks.

“A company may have one or two pieces of IP that are the secret sauce and some software,” Charlie Janac said. “Why not drop those into an FPGA and connect up the other pieces of IP? Those two worlds are merging. We’re going to see much more custom logic on an FPGA.”

Another company involved in bringing IP together is Silicon IP, run by Kurt Wolf (formerly of TSMC), who said there’s a disconnect between chipmakers and IP vendors that still needs to be closed. “The chip guys distrust the IP industry,” Wolf said. “There’s more integration of IP, but there’s still a lack of confidence about how to choose, buy and license IP.”

Wolf’s company is focused more on bringing the two sides together with better information and connecting the pieces in an organized way.

The future
All of these efforts—by both large IP vendors and startups—are signs of just how important commercial IP has become in chip development. What began with embedded processors and standard memory designs has evolved into a huge market that actually gained momentum in the recent downturn.

Outsourcing is gaining ground at every level of business, even outside of the semiconductor world, but in the past most of the gains have been in areas where there was little value add. Outsourcing traditionally has been relegated to commodity services. What’s changing is that IP now includes areas that companies cannot do themselves in addition to those they don’t want to do, as well as the extremely tedious and time-consuming integration work that is necessary to create a final product.

When most analysts predicted a massive growth in IP at the beginning of the decade they were largely talking about small, relatively unsophisticated IP blocks pieces that can be put together by highly sophisticated companies. In the future, the differentiation may be less around the technology and more on getting very complex chips assembled and to market faster for specific market segments.