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Cortus wrestles ARM in deeply embedded arena

Posted: 09 Oct 2014 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Cortus? deeply embedded? ARM? microprocessor? microcontroller?

Cortus, a 32bit microprocessor IP vendor based in France, has made a name for itself by successfully competing with ARM Cortex M0 in the deeply embedded market for nine years. This is no easy feat since the microprocessor and microcontroller IP core market is primarily controlled by ARM's massive IP portfolio. In fact, the French company believes its "minimalist" approach is the key to maintaining a strong foothold in the emerging market of connected devices.

Cortus has unleashed a line-up of products based on its second-generation (v2) instruction set. The company said its increased code density will meet the power and size requirements of new connected devices.

Responding to continuing demands for less power drain in SoC designs, Cortus has developed an instruction set aimed at reducing the size of a system's instruction memory. The APS23, the first product to use the v2 instruction set, is aimed at low-power always on/always listening systems and those with less demanding clock frequencies such as Bluetooth Low Energy.

APS23 Subsystem

APS23 Subsystem. (Image: Cortus)

Cortus president and CEO Michael Chapman stated that it has focused on reducing the size of the instruction memory, which he called "the largest single component in a system." With the v2 instruction set, Chapman claimed an average 16 per cent improvement in code density over the company's v1-based cores.

Simultaneously, Cortus is announcing the APS25 IP core, the second in a family of products based on the v2 instruction set. The core is designed for embedded systems that require greater computational performance and system complexity by supporting dual- and multi-core systems and improved code density.

Kevin Krewell, principal analyst at Tirias Research, said Cortus has a fighting chance against ARM because of the "options and flexibility" Cortus provides its licensees.

Cortus IPs are uniquely different from those of its big rival, ARM, because they offer "a co-processor interface and security," he said. "ARM, in contrast, has thus far resisted offering a co-processor interface while keeping a very tight control over its instruction set."

According to Cortus, the company's co-processor interface allows its licensees to add and design specific algorithms while giving them full access to CPU registers. The licensees can do so with no knowledge of the CPU internals.

The best example of this distinction lies in security implementation. Certicom, a subsidiary of BlackBerry, used Cortus' extendible instruction set for a Galois field multiple in elliptic curve encryption/decryption. Cortus IP allowed Certicom to couple its security tightly with a CPU. Krewell said this is a key differentiator for Cortus in the emerging Internet of Things (IoT), where "the need for security is paramount."

Chapman said today's processor market is in the third wave of computational devices, after the mainframe/PC and mobile device waves. Intelligent devices and wearables are based on no standard OS, and they are driven by cost and power. Under such circumstances, "efficiency has a key role to play here." Furthermore, "security is an open book."

Cortus was founded by a team of engineers bootstrapping themselves to develop a better CPU for embedded intelligence. In an era before anyone was talking about the IoT, Cortus' genesis was in Chapman's obsession with attempting to fit Bluetooth IP (software, hardware and interface in one bundle) into a single 8bit processor.

That didn't work, but its failure inspired him to develop a small 32bit processor with "a biggish address space" to get the job done. That tiny CPU concept has evolved into a mission to "provide a better CPU for the new wave of smart applications."

So far, Cortus, focused on developing power- and silicon-efficient 32bit processor cores, has signed up 38 licensees, with more than 700 million parts produced using Cortus cores. Design-in examples of Cortus processor cores include a WiFi chip by Newport Media (acquired by Atmel in July); touchscreen controllers by Point Chips, Imagis and LeadingUI; automotive sensors by e2v, Microsemi and NextChip; image sensors by Pyxalis; smart cards by StarChip; and security by Discretix.

The story of Cortus is similar to Taiwan's Andes Technology, whose business is also focused on the embedded market. Andes CPU cores apply to touch panel controllers, WiFi, Bluetooth, FM, GPS controllers and now sensor hubs squarely targeted at the IoT segment.

Krewell said that the market still offers a lot of opportunities for different cores.

Though Andes got its initial success from its efforts to leverage the Taiwan ecosystem, Cortus, a European IP vendor, could expand its business with a focus on security, Krewell said. The smart card business, which has grown up in Europe, is one example. Speaking of secure IC partnerships, he said that 6-8 secure operating systems have been ported to its cores.

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