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2
June
2017

Why, How and What of Custom SoCs

An opinion

Why, How and What of Custom SoCs

Ever watched the Ted talk by Simon Sinek, How great leaders inspire actions? Not yet? Then I encourage you watch this 20-minute talk. This video covers the most fundamental thing that most companies fail to address: connecting with customers! Often companies focus on their products, going into details about the technical features, price, engineering innovation, etc. However, they fail to address the basic thing that is needed for a successful sale: Why they are offering the product? Answering this question bridges the gap between product and market. Revenue is an outcome, not the sole purpose of a company’s existence.

Let us take an example of a conventional sales pitch for the embedded computing platform: System on Module (SoM).

“We offer SoM that has a SoC, memory, power circuitry, Operating System, and BSPs, all integrated on a small form-factor board that offers you a platform for building your next embedded product”.

Sounds exciting? Well, it depends. However, it does not generate a great interest. Now, how about the following as a sales pitch?

“Would you like to accelerate time-to-market for your next embedded product development, while also reducing development cost and risk? Well then, we have something that may interest you”.

The latter pitch nails it, by generating curiosity and interest. Yet the funny thing is that we are yet to use the term ‘SoM’, which we are supposed to sell! It starts from the customer-side, instead of starting with tech jargons.

Custom SoCs are not new in the semiconductor market. However, with latest industry dynamics and enablers, there is a renewed interest in custom SoCs. As someone who is not an expert either in technology or in marketing, but maybe a jack in both, this post is my humble attempt to apply Simon Sinek’s approach to custom SoCs. Hope you enjoy this post and share improvement areas on the same.

Why

Let us explore some of the industry dynamics, customer expectations, and motivations, for the push towards custom SoCs.

Questionable Moore’s Law

For more than five decades, Moore’s Law has guaranteed performance boosts, yet at lower cost and power consumption. With time, performance enhancement and power optimization were obvious. However, the economic equation, which is guaranteed by this law, is currently failing. With leading process nodes tending to reach atomic level, the designs are becoming complex, leading to long time for commercialization, thus the cost equation does not hold true. With custom SoCs, performance boosts and power efficiency are possible without compromising on cost.

Frugal and cost-sensitive IoT end-nodes

With smartphones adoption flattening out, IoT is the next wave that will drive revenue and growth of the semiconductor industry. The problem is that IoT is not a product; it is an ecosystem of products and services, each playing a specific role in the value chain. The use cases are not dictated by the supply side, but by the end users’ (or the demand side) need for optimizing cost and increasing productivity, efficiency, safety and convenience. For example, an industrial plant intends to reduce downtime of the system. They can put IoT end nodes at various points, and whenever there is a deviation from the expected behavior, the relevant end node sends alert, so the breakdown gets repaired in least possible time. The data collected from all the end nodes can also be used to perform analytics, which helps to explore means to predict failures and increase efficiency and productivity.

Most of these end nodes will be customer specific and application specific, and work in ambient conditions depending on the type of industry. Stock SoCs can be an overkill for these niche applications, and may not fit within the budget of many start-ups and small companies working on specific IoT use cases.

Competitive advantage

Stock SoCs are mostly a commodity as any company can use those and build their products. So, competitive advantage and differentiation are limited to mostly software. However, with custom SoCs, companies can extend the differentiation into low-level hardware as well. Some proprietary IPs, accelerators, etc. can be integrated on the SoCs to enhance performance and power efficiency.

Cost optimization

Stock SoCs are like buffet meals, in which you pay for the entire course irrespective of your appetite and food preference. In contrast, a custom SoCs is the a la carte option. Some reports mention that BoM cost and die size can be reduced substantially with custom SoCs.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Deep Learning (DL)

AI and its subset DL have the potential to offer enormous possibilities. Currently, GPUs are mostly used to address the computation needs for AI, as the former can perform parallel processing on large amounts of data. In future, we will see many applications and products that use AI for enhancing performance and efficiency. Many companies are venturing into custom chips that are optimized for AI. Tesla is supposed to be working on custom chips, which may have state-of-art computer vision and machine intelligence, for realizing driverless cars. TPUs from Google are optimized for AI, and some reports mention that the 2nd gen TPUs can outperform Nvidia GPUs for AI tasks. Apple moved away from stock GPUs, and is planning to build GPUs in-house, maybe to integrate more AI tasks on future iPhones.

How

In this section, I will focus on the enablers of custom SoCs. There are many proprietary ISAs that offers architectural license to build custom SoCs. However, I will cover two factors that are enabling penetration and adoption of custom SoCs, at low cost.

RISC-V

RISC-V ISA deserves a special attention for giving a strong boost to custom SoC market. Being an open-source ISA, RISC-V will enable designers to build custom SoCs at very low upfront cost. Designers don’t have to pay for the license and royalty. This is breakthrough innovation in the semiconductor industry, as it will add many new customers for custom SoCs. RISC-V is gradually building an ecosystem of IPs, debug-tools, etc.

ARM DesignStart

The ARM DesignStart enables designers to build custom SoCs at low cost. It offers free access to Cortex-M0 IP, EDA tools and physical IPs. With a minimal cost, designers can license the ARM IP for production devices.

What

Finally, I would like to touch on the technical part. With my limited understanding, my view is that custom SoCs are disrupting the existing fabless semiconductor value chain. Usually, OEMs procure stock SoCs offered by the SoC design companies such as Qualcomm, Nvidia and NXP. The SoCs are designed based on some licensable CPU IPs (ARM, MIPS, etc.), then manufactured at fabs such as TSMC and Global Foundries. SoC design companies attempt to address multiple markets and applications with their stock SoCs, as this strategy offers benefit of economies of scale. Custom SoC is breaking this value chain, with OEMs bypassing the SoC design companies, and dealing directly with IP vendors, EDA vendors and fabs.

With custom SoCs, designers can integrate any proprietary IPs, analog sensors, mixed-signal parts, DSPs, accelerators, etc., depending on their application needs. This also enables designers to push many tasks to hardware, instead of doing the same in software. The benefits of pushing things to hardware are more security, reduced software memory footprint, better performance and low power consumption.

Conclusion

I strongly believe that emerging market of IoT and AI will provide a huge thrust to custom SoCs. In the last decade, stock SoCs has seen unprecedented growth with smartphones. However, in future we will see more IoT and AI applications integrated on smartphones and other embedded devices, and then maybe custom SoCs will steal the show from stock SoCs. General-purpose or Stock SoCs will still play a dominant role; however, we will see more industry focus on application-specific parts.

It will be something like going back to past again. The industry started with ASIC, and then moved towards stock SoCs for cost advantage, and now we are seeing some motivation towards going back to custom SoCs (sort of ASIC) motivated by cost, performance and power efficiency.

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About the Author

Prakash Mohapatra

Prakash Mohapatra

Prakash has been associated with the technology industry for around a decade. He is keenly interested in exploring avenues to bridge the gap between customer utility and technology. He is an MBA graduate and also holds a Bachelors in Engineering.

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