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SoC Integration Complexity: Size Doesn’t (Always) Matter

Even small IoT designs can have plenty of complexity in architecture and integration.

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It’s common when talking about complexity in systems-on-chip (SoCs) to haul out monster examples: application processors, giant AI chips, and the like. Breaking with that tradition, consider an internet of things (IoT) design, which can still challenge engineers with plenty of complexity in architecture and integration. This complexity springs from two drivers: very low power consumption, even using harvested MEMS power instead of a battery, and quick turnaround to build out a huge family of products based on a common SoC platform while keeping tight control on development and unit costs.


Fig. 1: Block diagram of a low-power TI CC26xx processor. (Sources: The Linley Group, “Low-Power Design Using NoC Technology”; TI)

For these types of always-on IoT chips, a real-time clock is needed to wake the system up periodically – to sense, compute, communicate and then go back to sleep; a microcontroller (MCU) for control, processing, plus security features; and local memory and flash to store software. I/O is required for provisioning, debugging, and interfacing to multiple external sensors/actuators. Also necessary is a wireless interface, such as Bluetooth Low Energy, because the aim is first at warehouse applications, and relatively short-range links are OK for that application.

This is already a complex SoC, and the designer hasn’t even started to think about adding more features. For a product built around this chip to run for years on a coin cell battery or a solar panel, almost all of this functionality has to be powered down most of the time. Most devices will have to be in switchable power domains and quite likely switchable voltage domains for dynamic voltage and frequency scaling (DVFS) support. A power manager is needed to control this power and voltage switching, which will have to be built/generated for this SoC. That power state controller will add control and status registers (CSRs) to ultimately connect with the embedded software stack.


Fig. 2: There are ten power domains in the TI CC26xx SoC. The processor has two voltage domains in addition to always-on logic (marked with *). (Sources: The Linley Group, “Low-Power Design Using NoC Technology”; TI)

Running through this SoC is the interconnect, the on-chip communications backbone connecting all these devices, interfaces, and CSRs. Remember that interconnects consume power, too, even passively, through clock toggling and even leakage power while quiescent. Because they connect everything, conventional buses are either all on or all off, which isn’t great when trying to eke out extra years of battery life. Designers also need fine-grained power management within the interconnect, another capability lacking in old bus technology.

How can a design team achieve extremely low power consumption in IoT chips like these? By dumping the power-hungry bus and switching to a network-on-chip (NoC) interconnect.

Real-world production chip implementation has shown that switching to a NoC lowers overall power consumption by anywhere from two to nine times compared to buses and crossbars. The primary reasons NoCs have lower power consumption are due to the lower die area of NoCs compared to buses and crossbars and multilevel clock gating (local, unit-level, and root), which enables sophisticated implementation of multiple power domains. This provides three levels of clock gating. For the TI IoT chips, the engineering team implemented multiple overlapping power and clock domains to meet their use cases using the least amount of power possible while limiting current draw to just 0.55mA in idle mode. Using a NoC to reduce active and standby power allowed the team to create IoT chips that can run for over a year using a standard CR2032 coin battery.

Low power is not enough to create successful IoT chips. These markets are fickle with a need for low cost while meeting constantly changing requirements for wireless connectivity standards, sensors, display, and actuator interfaces. Now engineers must think about variants, or derivatives, based on our initial IoT platform architecture. These can range from a narrowband internet of things (NB-IoT) wireless option for agricultural and logistics markets to an audio interface alarm and AI-based anomaly detection. It makes perfect strategic sense to create multiple derivative chips from a common architectural SoC platform, but how will this affect implementation if someone made the mistake of choosing a bus? Conventional bus structures have a disproportionate influence on the floorplan. Change a little functionally, and the floorplan may have to change considerably, resulting in a de facto “re-spin” of the chip architecture, defeating the purpose of having a platform strategy. Can an engineer anticipate all of this while still working on the baseline product? Is there a way to build more floorplan reusability into that first implementation?

A platform strategy for low-power SoCs isn’t just about the interconnect IP. As the engineer tweaks and enhances each design by adding, removing or reconfiguring IPs, and optimizing interconnect structure and power management, the software interface to the hardware will change, too. Getting that interface exactly right is rather critical. A mistake here might make the device non-operational, but at least someone would figure that out quickly. More damaging to the bottom line would be a small bug that may leave on a power domain when it should have shut off. An expected 1-year battery life drops to three months. A foolproof memory map can’t afford to depend on manual updates and verification. It must be generated automatically. IP-XACT based IP deployment technology provides state-of-the-art capabilities to maintain traceability and guarantee correctness of this type of design data throughout the product lifecycle.

Even though these designs are small compared to mega-SoCs, there’s still plenty of complexity, yet plenty of opportunity to get it wrong. For more information, contact Arteris IP.



2 comments

Alex says:

why would NoC be less power hungry than a crossbar or just simple bus? NoC is itself sort of a crossbar… this assertion is really questionable.

You can’t compare designs on power consumption without providing detailed description of them

Kurt Shuler says:

Sorry late responding: Been on vacation!

We need to think system-level:

* One advantage of the NoC for IoT chips is you can finely control the power and clock domains within the chip. Even though the TI SimpleLink block diagram above doesn’t seem that complex, it has 10 power domains that are independently controlled through the NoC. Once you combine the different options for voltage scaling and clock frequencies, you get a very complex chip that sips power at a much lower rate than what would be possible with a bus or crossbar.

* Another advantage is that the way to make money on IoT chips is to have a common platform with multiple variants derived from it. The variants have different radios combinations, different sensor types, etc. There may be tens of these variants and most of these chips will not be successful in the markets. But a couple will be hugely successful! The NoC is what allows our IoT customers to easily plug-and-play different sensor and wireless baseband IPs to the common platform without affecting the rest of the SoC design.

Hope that helps!
Kurt

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