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Reusable virtual components gain popularity with SoC

Posted: 26 Jun 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:diana wu? faraday Technology? soc? intellectual property? ip?

By Diana Wu
Faraday Technology Corp.

The concept of using reusable block or silicon intellectual property (IP) is not new. The integrated design manufacturer has been using its own IP internally on derivative chips or new products demanding similar functions for decades. However, those IPs were never intended for sale to a third party; they were primarily a convenient way to reduce design efforts and manufacturing cost.

With the emergence of the pure foundry in the late 1980s, opportunities emerged for a new breed of design companies whose design freedom was not barred from the cost of foundry ownership. As a result, a new era in IC industry was born, encouraging the formation of a complete IC production chain.

Unfortunately, designing firms have little luxury of failure because of the cost associated with fabrication and design/verification tools. With the increasing demand for functionality, few design housesexcept for the very large oneseven attempted to design all the functionalities in-house. Consequently, the idea of leveraging the advantages of third party IPs in a design became an attractive alternative. Suddenly, the domain of IP is no longer a captivated internal continence, but a multimillion dollar industry with products ranging from basic library and memory to advanced microprocessors.

But the IP industry is not without its problems. In the upturn of the new IC era, the number of IP companies increased and the quality of the offering varied considerably. This is particularly true with analog IP, since the only way it can be verified is through silicon. Problems can still arise during volume production, though, because silicon verification may not cover all the known conditions. Lack of regulatory bodies also made standardized pricing and deliverable difficult. Furthermore, the IP is not as easy to integrate into a design as expected; in most cases, help from a design service firm is needed.

Design service companies typically started out as ASIC design houses, designing IPs for pure play foundries. They capitalize on their familiarity with all the major design tools and ASIC design process by providing turnkey solutions that cover physical designs, fabrication, test, packaging etc.

Although a design service company fills the void of expertise that customers lack, service can only be charged once making revenue increase difficultly. To overcome this problem, many begin to offer their own silicon IPs to supplement their revenue through royalties and licensing fees.

The crash of 2001 spelled disasters for pure IP companies who had not yet established brand loyalty. Many were bought out by more established companies, while others simply shut down for lack of revenues. Surprisingly, it's the design service/IP hybrids that survived IP revolution.

While the IP market is going through the turmoil of consolidation, the continuous reduction in silicon process geometries has afforded the modern chip designer to integrate virtually all the system functions in a SoC. To take the advantages of the latest manufacture processing, design reuse re-emerged as the best approach to boost design productivity.

Consumer applications
The emergence of SoC has prompted the consumer market to dominate the worldwide semiconductor applications. Unlike the traditional business applications, consumer products demand high functionality, low cost and short time-to-market. The convergence of 3C products also made product differentiation marginal. Therefore, the wining strategy in the new consumer market is not centered on technology, but the ability to integrate technologies.

Unfortunately, integrating several IPs from different IP vendors is no easy task, because most design approaches are still largely ad hoc block-based, which requires basic understanding on how the blocks work and how they integrate with other components within the design. In other words, using a pre-designed IP block cannot guarantee first cut success without extra effort spent on verification and debugging.

Platform-based design solution
Over the past few years, several companies have shifted its design approach by standardizing their own sets of IP or virtual components and software in a fully integrated common architecture from which products with common features can be built. The result is what is called as platform-based design. Several companies are using this design approach as an effective strategy to address product complexity and time-to-market in all levels.

The trend is clear. The modern chip cannot be manufactured without the collaboration between the design team and external subgroups such as IP provider, software developer, system designer, verification team, EDA tool provider and foundry.

In the future, silicon IP is unlikely to be sold as an individual component but as part of a pre-integrated, pre-verified platform that permits a high degree of versatility to interconnect other functional blocks into the SoC design.

About the author
Diana Wu
is a project manager for the marketing division of Faraday Technology Corp. She can reached at

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