SoC Costs Cut by Multi-Platform Design
Upward SoC cost trend blunted as designers reused software, verified IP and fewer blocks, reports long-time EDA analyst Gary Smith.
During last year’s Design Automation Conference (DAC), EDA-veteran analyst Gary Smith predicted that it cost slightly over $75 million to design the average high-end System-on-Chip (SoC). This was way over the $50 million targeted by IDM-fabless companies and even further from the $25 million start-up level preferred by funding institutions.
Shortly after that prediction, several companies reported building SoCs around the $40million level. How did they beat the expectation? First, they used previously developed software. Second they used IP that came with verification suites. Lastly, these companies significantly decreased the number of SoC blocks – below the preferred five core blocks. Taken together, these three factors constituted a methodology nicknamed the Multi-Platform Based Design approach.
In essence, this approach was based on the integration of existing platforms enhanced with a new application level to add competitive advantage. The greatest cost savings was realized from the reduction of new core designs.
The multi-platform based design platform has three levels: functional, foundation and application. The functional level represents the core of the SoC design, the broadest of the three platforms. Typically, it often comes from a third party, e.g., ARM Cortex A9 processing system, that is not geared to specific industry or product. If it comes from an in-house design, then it consists of all reused cores. This level provides no competitive advantage since it uses third party cores or IP.
The Foundation platform, also usually from a third party vendor, provides only a slight industry or market differentiation. Most foundation cores are focused on the mobile and consumer electronic markets, e.g., Nvidia’sTegra 3, TI’s OMAP and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon platforms. While enabling differentiation for a particular market segment – often the mobile or consumer electronic markets – foundation cores still provide only a small competitive advantage. Together, the functional and foundation platforms make up between 75 to 90 percent of the total gates in the SoC design.
At the top of the multi-platform based design is the application level, which provides the most market differentiation. This level consists of in-house or proprietary designs, e.g. IP or software from car-maker Audi’s navigation and infotainment systems. The drawback is that this level has the shortest product life cycle.
Applications that are popular can move from the application-level to the foundation level, as in the case of GPS and GPU SoCs. Foundation suppliers then begin to include these popular IPs in their regular offerings. If the application involves processing – like a GPU – then it may even evolve into the functional-level.
Those companies that create a popular application offering have a sustainable advantage, which becomes very hard for competitors to surpass. Smith cited the example of the PC- market. IBM developed the original PC, but within a decade Intel had taken over the market thanks to their platform approach. Now, as the processing has shifted to low-power mobile devices, Intel’s platform has been surpassed by ARMs.
Smith suggested that the good news for DAC is that the platform companies will find a welcomed business for their IP in the evolving system-level EDA market.