IP’s Ecosystem Race

Implementation challenges are driving big changes in how IP vendors are approaching customers.


By Ann Steffora Mutschler
As the semiconductor industry moves from older manufacturing nodes to newer ones what users want from IP providers is changing. So is the way IP providers are answering those needs.

Mirroring the broader semiconductor industry’s recognition that it’s simply too expensive, too difficult and too time consuming to do everything alone—the very basis of the IP sector’s existence—the race is now on to glue together large ecosystems that can fill in the cracks. What an IP vendor cannot provide, their partners usually can.

This is a huge shift for the IP industry. A decade ago, cores were delivered in a hardened fashion. But at current process nodes, as performance levels combined with design complexity and requirements for power management go up, design teams expect more.

The chip industry also has moved away from hard IP cores to synthesized cores, and for the last three or four semiconductor manufacturing nodes IP cores from the top providers in this space—ARM, MIPS, Synopsys and Virage Logic—have been offered primarily in a synthesized fashion, thereby putting the burden back on the designer to implement the core.

These issues make it increasingly challenging for a semiconductor company or OEM to remain competitive, so anything the IP vendor can do to make it easier to deliver a good result is highly valued. As Dr. John Heinlein, VP of marketing for the physical IP division at ARM put it, “We offer a complete solution to customers so they don’t have to stumble around in the dark trying to get an optimized implementation.”

Every major IP vendor has a similar approach. Economic conditions, time-to-market constraints caused by frequent product revs and shrinking product windows have made integration a key factor in the success of an IP implementation.

Kevin Kitagawa, director of strategic marketing for MIPS Technologies, affirmed that customers do indeed need solutions and, depending on the market segment, they ask for different things. “In a lot of cases, it is a time to market thing,” he said. “What they are trying to do is get from licensed IP to tape out as quickly as possible. It used to be that they would take the time and evaluate things and the value-add that the SoC designer did was really in that ‘secret sauce’ in tying all that IP together. That’s how they differentiated themselves from their competitors. They are still doing that, but it’s mainly by choice of IP.”

Yankin Tanurhan, vice president and general manager of the processor and non-volatile memory solutions division of Virage Logic, said the first step of extended IP demand started with customers asking for drivers for the IP they were integrating. But it didn’t stop there.

He said Virage has been “quite adamant” about the draw of a full IP solution, pointing to its Sound-to-Silicon solution as one example: “[This approach] shortens the time to delivery of the complete product because today’s world is expecting much more than just a drop of an RTL or attaching a driver to that RTL – they are expecting to get the full stacks, potentially even the codecs.”


The bigger picture
But providing every stack and codec isn’t possible for every vendor. As a result, IP providers have created their own ecosystems of third-party partners to deliver what they don’t, and have built up engineering teams to keep quality levels high across the ecosystem.

For instance, Virage has a 50+ member engineering team in St. Petersburg that focuses on codecs, as well as embedded software development activities in Eindhoven, Netherlands, and Fremont, Calif.

Likewise, ARM counts more than 700 partners in its ARM Connected Community including software partners writing development tools, middleware and drivers; customers creating IP building blocks such as interface IP; design services partners; and foundries.

Through its MIPS Alliance Program, Kitagawa explained that MIPS works with key partners to put together ‘best practices’ solutions that encompass recommended design techniques, interfaces and targeted reference designs in key market segments of security, graphics and video.

In the case of a graphics application, one such reference design would include recommendations for bus structures and how to connect those two pieces of IP together. In a set-top box application, where video performance is of the utmost importance, MIPS includes bus structures and latency-interrupt types of mechanisms.

Kitagawa stressed that MIPS has worked very, very closely with partners to develop optimal recommendations for each and every one of these application cases.

Differentiation by micromarket
While partnerships are a key way that IP vendors look to stand out from the crowd, each vendor also focuses on providing different aspects of IP.

ARM spans the widest range, from cores (generally offered in a synthesizable fashion) to other key blocks that are becoming performance-critical like graphics and video. It also provides fabric (interconnect infrastructure and bus interface that is the backbone of the system); and physical IP (from the acquisition of Artisan — targeted at addressing implementation complexities).

“Back in the day, the Artisan model was primarily geared around mature technologies,” Heinlein said. “Artisan pioneered the free library program – which was incredibly successful and still is – to gather a lot of customers in by having no upfront licensing fee.”

ARM still maintains that model today, but in the past several years the company has invested heavily in advanced technologies – 65nm to 28nm – realizing that customers have implementation challenges and really need a complete solution.

“Not only are we developing IP in general for those advanced technologies, but we’re also specifically focusing on the key performance critical subsystems of the ARM core. One of the things we are doing is developing what we call application-optimized/processor-optimized physical IP. Customers come to us and they say, ‘I need to implement a Cortex A9 core and I need to get the high megahertz. How can you help me?’ So we are developing the standard cell libraries and memory compilers they use but we’re also developing specifically-optimized standard cells that make the processor go faster, and specifically optimized memory instances that make it easier to get to high performance and low power,” Heinlein said.

“We are really focusing our efforts on all of the performance-critical subsystems of the SoC, which means the ARM core – the heart of the SoC, into the graphics subsystem which is performance-critical, into the interconnect within the chip, all the way out to the DDR. That path dominates the performance of the SoC. It’s also important to have USB, PCI Express and those interfaces, but there are a lot of providers that make that kind of IP, in fact, we are really deemphasizing those areas for our own development. We’re focusing on the core physical IP: standard cells, logic, memory compilers, I/O products, DDR – all of that is crucial for the performance of the SoC,” he added.

For Virage Logic, the company views its biggest differentiator from the competition as its processor offering that surrounds the host processor, Tanurhan said. “Today’s and tomorrow’s SoCs have multiple processors. One of our customers is using nearly 60 of our cores on a single chip. We co-exist very nicely because even on a cell phone, for the touchpad you need a processor, for the roller ball you need a processor, for the USB you need a processor, for the Bluetooth you need a processor, and there will be a host – that fight has to be decided between the two big guys.”

When it comes to MIPS, Kitagawa said the company differentiates itself in terms of what it offers to customers in major market segments, and in developing “true” partnerships with third party IP providers through its Alliance Program, whereby roadmaps are shared and work is done at the system level to solve engineering issues.

MIPS believes it brings the benefits of a one-stop-shop by working with its partners very closely to make sure everything is optimized. “We give the benefits of coming from a single company but offering choice to customers,” Kitagawa concluded.

As the implementation challenges growing ever more complex, so too will be the market strategies of vendors looking to meet the needs of customers. But what appears to be increasingly clear is that IP vendors can only get so far with their own differentiation and market brand. It now requires a much broader approach.

It’s no longer enough to just stake out a market and integrate all the pieces of IP together. Increasingly, the key to success appears to be a much deeper integration that extends beyond an IP company’s own product line to include the products of their ecosystem partners. That marks a fundamental change in the IP market, at once making it much more useful while ultimately blurring the lines between one IP company’s offerings and those of its partners.

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