New Winners And Losers

The next few years will redefine the semiconductor industry on a global basis. The whole ecosystem is in motion.

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The realignment of the semiconductor industry has begun, most of it beneath the radar screen. In a disaggregated supply chain, any piece in isolation looks insignificant. But taken together, these shifts begin to paint a picture of a broad realignment and refocusing of the entire industry that ultimately will cement the fortunes of some and create new winners and losers out of others.

The first significant shift is that SoCs are moving mainstream—and mainstream players are moving toward SoCs. Intel announced its intention to become a bigger SoC player several years ago at the Intel Developer Forum, and has begun offering foundry services in a modular approach to other companies building SoCs. That hasn’t amounted to much, so far. But add in a couple other pieces and the picture begins to change. eSilicon has been positioning itself to better control pieces of the supply chain and to document the behavior and characteristics of third-party IP to build complex SoCs. Now Open-Silicon is shifting its focus from ASICs to SoCs.

The big IP players have been busy finding a lucrative niche for themselves, too. Mentor Graphics, Synopsys and Cadence have made big investments in verification IP, as well as other IP they have been buying up and building for the past several years. And companies such as ARM, MIPS, Tensilica and Texas Instruments are battling for sockets in complex SoCs where one processor core is not enough and homogeneous cores aren’t the most efficient.

All of this stuff has to be integrated and connected, too, preferably in a coherent and flexible way. That helps explain the open hostilities between the two leading players in the network-on-chip arena—Sonics and Arteris—and the recent introduction by ARM of its Amba 4 Coherency Extensions (ACE). Connectivity is critical for this whole shift, and the opportunity is very large.

And on the foundry side, GlobalFoundries and TSMC, have been developing developed interposer technology, adding DFM and DFY support for complex SoCs, and slowly building expertise on full 3D integration, which they expect to begin rolling out en masse over the next couple of years.

Each of these moves position these players, as well as startups in places such as China and India, for packaging and stacking of die, the emergence of complex pre-verified subsystems that can be assembled more quickly and cheaply than in the past, and for new services along the way to help create and integrate SoCs. While ASIC design starts have remained flat, the number of design starts for complex subsystems that will be every bit as complex as an ASIC will increase dramatically. That, in turn, will reshape what tools are needed, how they’re sold, and how companies go to market.

Taken in isolation, none of these moves amounts to much more than noise. Over the years there has been plenty of noise, making it hard to decipher real movement from marketing hype. And in a disaggregated industry, moves by one company have to be synchronized with others to be significant. But looked at together, it’s becoming clear that the entire IC ecosystem is in motion and jockeying for change. From here on, things should get quite interesting.

–Ed Sperling