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Speed IoT ASIC design using platforms

Posted: 18 Jan 2016 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Internet of Things? IoT? ASIC? ASSPs? FPGA?

The Internet of Things (IoT) hype is now becoming a reality. This, in turn, is creating the opportunity to move from off-the-shelf chip designs to custom silicon. The key to creating cost-effective, custom silicon for the IoT will be the platform approach.

It is fair to say that IoT is now living up to the hype. There has been a significant uptick in activity over the past year with the IoT ecosystem, the end customers, the hardware and software vendors, the system integrators and the start-up community. Yes, IoT implementations are definitely happening, although not at the same rate as first expected, and certainly not the 50 billion devices or a trillion sensors by 2020. Nevertheless, it is an encouraging sign for ASIC design companies as they become an important and differentiating cog of the IoT supply chain.

Historically the industry has been churning out custom silicon for the cloud side of IoT for years, specifically in the networking, telecommunication, storage and computing arenas. However, devices on the edge of the IoT network have, so far, been designed using stock components rather than custom silicon. Using a platform approach to custom silicon design can substantially enhance functionality and offer greater design flexibility.

An IoT edge device typically performs three functions: sensing/actuating, processing and communication. Depending on various factors, like cost, schedule and application, a custom silicon implementation in these IoT edge devices could be a low-end/low-cost, mid-level or highly integrated solution. Below is a representation of typical ASIC configurations of each type. In all of these cases, ultra-low power is a default requirement.

Figure 1: Example ASIC configurations.

At the start of the IoT era, most designers were satisfied using standard ICs/ASSPs to make edge products. Custom silicon for these devices did not cut it, either because of the NRE cost (although unit price can be way cheaper) or the product schedule would kill an ASIC plan.

Recently, however, designers across vertical markets like healthcare, industrial and smart utilities, want custom silicon to differentiate their products and future-proof them as much as possible. In many cases, these designers are working on their second- or third-generation product lines and they have hit sufficient volumes to justify the NRE investment required for ASICs. In other cases, customers feel that ASSPs don't offer the differentiation they desire, or they have an IP, or secret sauce, that needs to go in hardware form.

Nevertheless, the schedule issue still remains. This is where IoT ASIC platforms become very relevant. Done right, platforms can speed custom design while retaining the ability to differentiate. An IoT edge device, based on an ASIC platform, should cater to the following goals:

1. Use FPGA setup to provide:
???A ready-to-use development setup to meet the needs of both hardware and software developers.
???A vehicle to demonstrate a proof of concept including, in some cases, a gateway and cloud back-end.
???A scalable evaluation setup for trying out different HW-SW partitioning or a custom HW/SW IP.

2. Provide an ASIC environment that allows power benchmarking and evaluation of different power management schemes.

Creating IoT ASIC platforms requires thinking like a system company, or even like a start-up, and requires the consideration of end use-cases in the various IoT vertical markets. This also requires creating an end-to-end system with edge devices, and in some cases, including a gateway and a cloud back-end. Some scenarios that can utilise IoT edge device ASIC platforms include:
???Ambient environment sensing in an industrial environment with communication protocols like LoRa, W-HART and Zigbee. The system view of this use case is shown below.
???Motion sensing using 9-axis sensors (Accelerometer, Gyrometer and Magnetometer) and BLE communication.
???Pulse oximetry with BLE communication.

Figure 2: Use-case: Ambient Environment Sensing & Communication in an Industrial IoT Setup .

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