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China design firms favor soft IP

Posted: 01 Jan 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:intellectual property? soft IP? IP? China design houses? system-on-chip?

China companies that buy intellectual property (IP) blocks are favoring soft cores rather than hard cores. To take advantage of this trend, IP vendors are beginning to loosen up about delivering RTL code to China customers.

In the past, some core providers were reluctant to offer soft IP in the China market due to an understandable concern about IP protection. But with the maturing of the China design industry, those fears have largely been assuaged.

The development is occurring as China companies are becoming more proficient at handling the more design-intensive soft IP. "Perhaps before, because they did not know how to deal with the soft cores, they would just go to the foundry and use the hard cores," said Chu Lung, president of Asia-Pacific for Cadence Design Systems Inc. "But more and more, as the engineers gain experience, people are using the soft cores in their designs."

Engineers generally prefer soft cores, as long as they come with good design tools that cut down on the time it takes to learn and tweak the RTL. Soft cores offer a lot of design flexibility and area optimization. While these attributes help in any competitive market, they are especially advantageous in the cost-sensitive ones that most China companies enter.

Although a hard core may sound like an attractive proposition, engineers sometimes run afoul of manufacturing issues, such as whether the hard core is used in a six-, seven- or eight-layer-metal process technology. That can lead to further considerations, such as different rules about via size, depending on the number of layers.

Let the tools do it
For instance, the tinkering that a soft core allows might enable engineers to place an IP block where it's best suitednear the I/O, perhapswhere it can pick up power and ground links, and possibly isolate those links as part of a voltage island.

"If people can get a synthesizable core package and the scripting around that package is robust, then they can do their floorplanning, put the core where they think it needs to be, and push the buttons and let the layout tools work," said Steve Roddy, VP of marketing at Tensilica Inc., which recently announced its first public design win in China.

At MIPS Technologies Inc., 95 percent of the business is soft cores, said Jack Browne, VP of marketing. Most of the five percent that is hard cores represents business done in Taiwan and China. In China, the 11 deals MIPS has completed have been split almost evenly, but Browne believes China companies will lean more toward soft cores in the future.

"There has always been some risk in selling the RTL in China," he said. But he also agrees that China customers who are looking to do soft cores will add a higher level of innovation to the chip, such as custom instructions. That means their interests and MIPS' interests "are definitely linked" when it comes to protecting the IP, he said.

Roddy agreed. With Tensilica's configurable technology, engineers are able to customize the cores with unique algorithms and instruction sets. "Then they have a real incentive to keep a good close eye on where that core goes because it is theirs. It's not just some piece of IP that they bought," he said. "So we know that our customers' interests and our interests are closely aligned."

Cost-down philosophy
At the same time, a fair number of China IC design houses are integrating different IP blocks and not designing much of their own IP. They are trying to move quickly and practice the cost-down philosophy. In those cases, hard cores may be a good fit, despite some of the limitations.

By aligning themselves with China design houses that are more focused on innovating in some way, IP vendors feel more assured. Plus, there are other ways to put safeguards in place, such as delivering encrypted RTL. Yet sometimes, even that isn't a guarantee that someone won't be able to craft a copy and sell it.

Ultimately, as the use of IP cores rises in China, those companies that are looking to target foreign markets will have an incentive to make sure they use the real thing and protect it. The risk/reward equation of using a fake core to target a product being sold overseas wouldn't be worth it. "When you think about five million chips shipped at $5 each, that is a lot of money. Saving a few bucks on a fake IP doesn't make sense," Roddy said.

- Mike Clendenin
EE Times

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