Arm: The 3 Biggest Myths about Creating a Custom SoC
by Phil Burr
ARM® Senior Product Marketing Manager, CPU Group
Phil Burr is a senior product marketing manager in ARM’s CPU group responsible for the established products within ARM®, including the ARM DesignStart™ program. Phil’s experience, spanning more than 20 years, covers product strategy, product marketing, business development and product management, mainly in IP licensing businesses. Phil holds an MEng and a BEng degree in electronics, communications and computer system engineering from the University of Bradford.
THE IOT IS PROGRESSING QUICKLY AND THE STAKES ARE HIGH
The IoT and connected embedded intelligence are already an integral part of people’s lives at an individual, industrial and societal level. You see it from everyday wearables to city-scale lighting control.
Now we are seeing IoT go even further, enabling innovation in products and services, taking embedded intelligence to a whole new level – it is changing the way we do business and the way we live. This means, that for developers and entrepreneurs, if you want to stay competitive, you must push the boundaries of what products can do. Off-the-shelf System on Chips (SoCs) will meet the needs of many products; however others will benefit from a custom SoC. Those who get there quicker and more efficiently will have the greatest chance of success.
Despite the clear benefits of creating a custom SoC, however, there are three key concerns holding developers back from creating a custom SoC – cost to develop, skill to design and access to IP. All of which can be overcome if we move past the underlying myths.
THERE IS A MARKET FOR CUSTOM SoCS – AND A HANDFUL OF MYTHS, TOO
This new wave of innovation typically involves the integration of sensors, mixed signal, RF, CPU, and memory – all designed and integrated to meet the specific requirements of the application. This is where custom SoCs are required. Whether you are a sensor or mixed-signal company, a start-up or an OEM, you want to deliver products or services that are cutting edge and differentiated.
THE IOT IS PUSHING EVERYONE OUT OF THEIR COMFORT ZONE.
Let’s debunk the myths around cost, skill and access, and then discuss the tools and support available to help developers get past these barriers and get to silicon. To do this I will include some of points raised on a recent panel at ARM® TechCon entitled, “Creating custom SoCs for IoT: Easier than you might think.”
Myth #1 – Cost to develop
Wherever the word ‘custom’ is used, it generally produces a mental picture of a high price tag. It is no different when discussing microcontrollers - the term ‘custom SoC’ carries a common myth that the cost requires an army of angel investors.
To consider only costs would be a bit short-sighted – it is important to reduce costs, but not at the expense of quality. With custom SoCs, there are now ways to reduce costs, ensure quality and open up the door to differentiation. This goes a long way towards enabling a new range of connected and secure embedded applications that could not be implemented as efficiently or cost effectively with off-the-shelf components.
INTEGRATION ADVANTAGES GO BEYOND COST.
Here’s a great example of the real cost reductions an ARM partner who produced a mixed-signal SoC reported:
- reduced BoM costs of 90%
- reduced PCB area of 85%
- and reduced power.
And in terms of more qualitative benefits, our partner also reported that its custom SoC delivered improved reliability, enabled further control of the supply chain and opened up opportunities for significant differentiation.
Although not all custom SoCs will see such large improvements, it is benefits like these that prompted ARM to create a new ARM DesignStart™ package, providing free access to the ARM Cortex®-M0 for the design and development phase, and a simplified low-cost package when ready to move to the commercialisation phase.
The other myth when considering cost is that silicon costs will be prohibitively expensive. As stated on the ARM TechCon panel:
NOT EVERYTHING HAS TO BE ON THE LATEST AND GREATEST PROCESS NODE.
The majority of custom IoT SoCs are developed using more mature process nodes, particularly when including analog IP. 180nm or 65nm are very popular for the smaller devices and this is due to a combination of availability of proven analog IP at these nodes, and that the smaller nodes simply do not offer enough benefits.
Myth #2 – Skill to design
The second barrier to custom SoC development is skill. It is true that since custom SoCs are developed for a very specific purpose, there is a higher level of expertise required. For example, Prithi Ramakrishnan from ARM® describes in her blog how picking the correct IP for each device is a complex process, especially when it is mixed signal; it will inherit the complexities of both digital and RF (radio frequency)/analog IP, which both have their unique integration and delivery challenges.
In order to further help developers create custom SoCs, ARM has developed its ARM Approved Design Services program to partner with a range of audited design houses and design services companies, such as Sondrel. These ARM Approved companies bring ARM-based chip-development expertise, from turn-key chip development to consultancy. They can assist teams with less SoC design experience and can provide additional resource to smaller design teams.
As part of the ARM Approved Design Services program, ARM has audited Sondrel on its ability to deliver success in SoC design services based around Cortex-M0 and the DesignStart program. As part of this audit Sondrel has demonstrated a record of delivering successful design projects using ARM Cortex IP.
Myth #3 - Access to IP
The third barrier to custom SoC development is access to IP. How do you engage the supply chain? What questions should you ask? How do to manage all of the different relationships? The time and effort of building the network and finding the right partners can feel overwhelming.
This is where ARM DesignStart and the ARM Approved Design Services programs come in – to help innovation succeed. ARM Approved companies offer complete solutions and tools, and access to a network of required partners. It’s their job to help make the whole process smooth, from idea to silicon. They build on common elements that go into every IoT product to help reduce custom SoC development time, risk and cost.
SONDREL PROVIDE A SINGLE CHANNEL INTO THE SUPPLY CHAIN.
Furthermore, ARM DesignStart makes it even easier to access the ARM Cortex-M0 processor, the entry to the widest ecosystem for embedded applications. It is ideal for those looking to use a Cortex-M in a wide range of markets, including IoT, sensors, control and mixed-signal SoCs.
The Cortex-M0 package, available on designstart.arm.com, enables SoC developers to design, simulate and test their Cortex-M0 based systems for free. Developers can then go on to prototype on an FPGA board that can be purchased from ARM.
Once ready to move to the commercialization phase, a developer can upgrade to a simplified and standardized $40k Fast Track license. This includes: commercial use of ARM Cortex-M0 processor IP, SDK, and Keil MDK development tools, along with ARM technical support. No matter the application, the Sondrel team is ready to work with you to bring your design to production.
DESIGNSTART MAKES IT MUCH EASIER FOR CUSTOM SoC DEVELOPERS TO DEVELOP INNOVATIVE CORTEX-M0 BASED SoCS, WITH MINIMAL OUTLAY.
ARM and Sondrel have partnered to reduce the barriers to cost, expertise and time. This provides a large step towards enabling a new range of connected and secure embedded applications that could not be implemented as efficiently with off-the-shelf components.
For more information about ARM DesignStart and to register for free access to Cortex-M0, visit designstart.arm.com.
Our thanks to ARM® for contributing to our Sondrel Blog.
Sondrel is an IC Design Services Consultancy, and an ARM Approved Design Partner. Our global engineering team is based in 7 international design centre locations - in Europe, Morocco, India and China.
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