August 17, 2012 -- The adoption of a reliable design reuse methodology, proliferation of high-quality IP products, and shake-out of the most un-trustworthy IP vendors creates a situation offering a huge potential advantage to system integrators and product designers looking to jump ahead of their competition. Instead of choosing the same big-vendor, star IP that most competitors might pick by default, smarter firms will seek out and commit to what might be technically superior IP products from smaller vendors/ partners who will offer both deeper and broader service and support.
Microprocessors and controllers, the heart of most systems and usually the first, most-critical system-design choices, are good examples.
Consider a deeply embedded system that needs the power of a 32-bit processor. Much like the saying from the 1980s that "nobody gets fired for buying an IBM PC," choosing a processor from the leading processor company is probably the easiest, safest choice, and it's certainly an undeniably fine product with an extremely effective ecosystem. But making this choice might mean missing an opportunity for differentiation in a competitive market where every advantage is required for success.
The IP-portal sites list many 32-bit processor cores beyond those from the leading processor company, with ChipEstimate and Design & Reuse each returning nearly 300 results for such a search. More significantly, I count almost 30 different providers of these products. Certainly, some of these vendors offer a product, support, or licensing terms — or perhaps even all three — that could give the smart designer a critical edge.
Based on my recent visits with designers in California and Asia, six of these stand out as being especially popular:
- AndesCore from Andes Technology.
- BA22 developed by Beyond Semiconductor and available from CAST, Inc.
- ColdFire from IPextreme.
- eSi-3250 from EnSilica.
- LEON3 from Aeroflex Gaisler.
- MIPS 4KS and others from MIPS Technologies.
How can you determine if options like these provide benefits sufficient to outweigh the risk of not going with the leading processor company? Comparisons can be tricky, but there are a few key points to start with.
The technical suitability and potential advantages of course depend on the detailed needs of your system. A good IP-sales team will help you articulate the relevant characteristics of your project and make sure their product will work well before selling it to you.
Quick comparisons of the performance and operating characteristics is made easier through the publication of well-accepted power-consumption and speed measures, such as the CoreMark performance and CSiBC code-density standards. Be sure, however, to look deeper to fully understand the specific configuration and technology details behind each vendor's figures compared to that of your own target system.
Ecosystems for programming and system development tools are a hot processor-marketing topic. Be sure that the basics are covered: effective software programming tools such as the GNU tool chain, JTAG debugging, and ports of the RTOS or OS you want to use. A graphical IDE, support from tool vendors such as Keil or Lauterbach, and evaluation and development board kits are extras that can help further accelerate development.
Licensing terms and actual costs can vary dramatically. For example, some vendors rely on royalty streams for their profits, while others have simpler up-front licensing fees with no royalties. What's best for you depends on your specific product and market plans.
Finally, credibility of the processor and the vendor are both crucial. For the former, look to successful use by other customers with applications similar to your own. For the latter, look for business longevity and general reputation, backed by your own experiences with the provider's sales and engineering people. Try to extrapolate from a vendor's pre-sale support how effective their integration help and other technical-support services will be after you purchase from them.
The examples of 32-bit processor alternatives listed earlier all compare favorably with the leading processor company's products in these factors; any might be the one to give you the extra technical, time-frame, or cost-edge you need to make your product more competitive.
The same is true of most other areas of semiconductor IP. Now that our industry embraces the use of third-party IP, the smartest designers will get a major payback from putting up-front effort into investigating the very best IP for their specific needs, whether that initially seems like the "safe" choice or not.
By Nikos Zervas, Ph.D.
Dr. Nikos Zervas joined CAST, Inc. in 2010 and is the Vice President of Marketing. Before that, he was a co-founder, chairman, and CEO of video/ image SIP vendor Alma Technologies, SA. He is a board member of the Hellenic Silicon Industry Association, is a senior member of IEEE, and has published over forty papers in journals and international conferences.
Go to the CAST, Inc. website to learn more.