Picking The Right Processor

Unit shipments, ROI and ecosystem support are critical factors in choosing which processor architecture to enable.

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By Frank Schirrmeister
In an embedded system, the sole connection point between the software and the hardware is the processor. Somewhere right now the effort to develop software for a complex System-on-Chip (SoC) is surpassing the effort of developing the chip itself. As I pointed out in my recent description of the Design West conference in San Jose, complex ecosystems of related content, tools and service offerings may look chaotic at first, but I concluded that they make sense given that the underlying processor architectures are the cornerstones for which all of the vendors at Design West become one large eco-system

Just how many processor architectures are there to support? And how does a ecosystem partner decide on priorities amongst processor architectures? Some relevant data was presented by IDC at the recent SMART Technology conference in San Francisco. In his opening key-note, Mario Moralez, program vice president, Enabling Technologies and Semiconductors, showed a chart outlining the 2011 CPU Unit Shipments and CPU Revenues by Architecture as outlined in this Blog’s figure. The underlying data for this graph includes standalone CPUs and System-on-Chips (SoCs) consumed by all tracked electronic system types.

Architecture Split of Embedded and Intelligent Systems, Source: IDC, SMART Technology Conference

Architecture Split of Embedded and Intelligent Systems, Source: IDC, SMART Technology Conference

This graph clearly articulates the gist of the battle ARM and Intel are fighting right now in the market. ARM, as an IP company, participates in the revenue of the silicon only indirectly, by way of royalties. Intel, as a semiconductor company, directly collects revenue from semiconductor sales. By unit shipments ARM clearly leads, with 71% of CPU unit shipments ARM based, followed by MIPS with 11%, Intel with 8% and Power by 2%, and all others summing up to 11%. The revenue picture, however, looks much more balanced. Here Intel is leading with 41% of the revenues, followed by ARM with 38%, Power by 8% and MIPS with 7%, all others summing up to 6%.

For an ecosystem partner this is an interesting market scenario. For system development tools like Virtual Prototyping, Emulation, Acceleration and FPGA based prototyping, support of cornerstone processor architectures is very important. All these technologies need connections to the software which the hardware interacts with, and that connection is established through the processor architecture.

There are a couple of considerations to consider when ecosystem players such as Cadence are deciding on priorities between the architectures:

  • The number of processor unit shipments is important because it is indicative of the number of projects into which one can sell. ARM clearly leads here according to the IDC data.
  • The overall development value and expected return of the project is important because the higher the value of the project, the higher the perceived risk will be and the more open a user will be to use advanced technologies to enable early software development and advanced hardware/software verification technologies. The picture is much more balanced here—Intel leads, ARM is close, the rest is a smaller portion of the addressable market.
  • The number of different customers doing the actual development tasks also impacts the number of licenses one can sell to support processor architecture specific development tasks like software development and debug with virtual prototyping or software debuggers connected to emulators or accelerators. ARM, MIPS and Power are really licensed architectures and as such fan out to a large number of licensees which need ecosystem support. Intel on the other hand pursues a non-licensed model in which the i86 and Atom architectures really only are implemented in Intel based silicon, and SoC customizations are made specifically for Intel customers by Intel or their partners. As such, the licensed architectures – ARM being the leading one – are attracting a large, independent ecosystem of supporting content, tools and services.
  • All that said, ARM clearly becomes the most natural must-have architecture to be supported by ecosystem players like us at Cadence. For the System Development Suite the connections to ARM are quire crucial, and you can find a brief video interview from Design West.

—Frank Schirrmeister is group director for product marketing of the System Development Suite at Cadence.