Proving IP

It’s not enough just to offer IP. It needs to be fully characterized in realistic conditions.

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As the amount of commercially available IP in a design increases, so does the level of confusion. Unlike those giant yellow stickers you get with a major appliance that tell you how much energy you’re likely to use over the course of a year and the projected cost range, there’s no such information available for semiconductor IP.

In fact, there’s even resistance to provide that kind of information. The argument is that no two designs are alike and therefore it’s impossible to provide that level of detail. There is some merit to that argument. Still, this approach has to change for the commercial IP model to grow—and for rival IP makers to know what the target cost, power and performance metrics are that they have to beat. That’s what makes an industry competitive, but it’s also what makes companies buying that IP more inclined to put their trust behind it. And in this case, trust can be measured in tens of millions of dollars for a single design. That’s a big purchase, even by mega-company standards.

So what’s needed to make this work? In addition to data about sensitivity to noise and heat, specs are needed about how IP works at different process nodes where shrinking wires can quickly result in excessive heat and cause electromigration. How much energy does an IP block use at full power—which is a common strategy for saving power because of quick on and off—versus running at lower power. And if it isn’t operating at full power, what’s the effect on performance and the overall power budget, and what kinds of physical effects are there that could affect other components or overall performance? If it’s digital, how much noise does it generate? If it’s analog, how sensitive is it to other noise? And what’s the average speed and energy draw—similar to ratings for cars about mileage—under well-defined use cases?

The fact that businesses have capitalized on their very specific knowledge of IP and how it interacts with other IP and standard components is a model of enterprise, and it has been a necessary stopgap measure for a nascent industry. However, it doesn’t help the IP industry grow—or grow up. And with estimated annual revenues of $4 billion, and 2% to 3% compound annual growth, it’s time the IP industry began to behave like the thriving industry that it has become.

IP will always be a black box in some respects, and with the addition of subsystems those black boxes will grow even larger, be optimized for specific configurations, and offer significant improvements in performance, efficiency, integration and reliability. There’s a lot of work that goes into developing IP blocks, and even more for subsystems, and for good business reasons the exact formula needs to remain with the company that developed it. But as with Coca Cola, you don’t need to give away the recipe to remain competitive. Nevertheless, you should be able to tell how much sugar and caffeine is in it, and how many calories you’re consuming if you drink a small one versus a supersized drink. IP that goes into an SoC is no different.

The rule of thumb in the IP business is, let the buyer beware. The problem is that the buyer can only really beware if they know what they’re buying. At this point, it’s still a mystery, and that doesn’t help anyone in the long run.

—Ed Sperling