China was a virgin territory for Arteris Inc. before July 19, 2012 when Fuzhou Rockchip Electronics announced that it has licensed the Arteris FlexNoC network-on-chip (NoC)-based interconnect IP technology for its multicore SoCs for budget Android tablets. Rockchip mostly targets the tablet and set-top box (STB) markets in China and Taiwan with high-end processors at a lower price point.
Rockchip, one of the largest chipmakers in China, quickly set the precedent for efficient SoC development and soon a number of chipmakers in China followed suit by licensing Arteris’ FlexNoC interconnect IP technology. The chipmakers in China that have now licensed Arteris’ interconnect IP for SoC development include high-flyers such as HiSilicon, Spreadtrum, Leadcore, RDA Microelectronics, Allwinner and Nufront.
Earlier this month, the Fuzhou, China-based Rockchip renewed ties with Arteris by licensing the FlexNoC fabric IP for its RK Series of SoC devices. The FlexNoC interconnect fabric will serve as the backbone communications IP for Rockchip applications processors. Arteris’ FlexNoC IP will provide the interconnect glue between graphics processing units (GPUs), on-chip peripherals and other subsystems of the SoC device.
Rockchip’s RK3288 is known to have cost US$40 per chip
The on-chip quality-of-service features of FlexNoC guarantees high bandwidth availability for initiators such as GPU and low latency for communications such as the CPU-to-memory. One of the key advantages of FlexNoC interconnect IP in large SoC development is the minimization of routing congestion, which in turn, reduces timing convergence issues and accelerates time-to-market. It’s important to note that Rockchip, in its early going, used to develop one SoC device in a year. Now, since adopting Arteris NoC IP, Rockchip managers boast doing as many as six SoC designs in a year.
In 2012, Rockchip’s IC Design Manager Li Shiqin acknowledged that his company chose Arteris’ FlexNoC technology instead of older interconnect technologies like buses and crossbars because it allowed Rockchip to simultaneously meet design frequency, power, memory efficiency and QoS requirements. Fast forward to April 2015, Li is now IC Design Director at Rockchip and says that FlexNoC interconnect technology brings Rockchip SoCs both differentiation and time-to-market benefits. “Our extensive use of Arteris FlexNoC interconnect IP has enabled us to increase the number of complex SoC designs we can implement in a year with the same amount of resources.”
Beyond faster turnaround time, IP products like the Arteris FlexNoC fabric come with another substantial benefit for China’s SoC houses like Rockchip. China’s large SoC makers like Rockchip are mostly using CPU cores from ARM and graphics cores from either ARM or Imagination Technologies. So being able to choose from the best of the cutting-edge IP products provides them with an effective venue for differentiating their SoCs from competitor products.
Rockchip was first in China to embrace Arteris interconnect IP for SoC design
Take Rockchip’s RK3288 processor, for instance, which Acooo has used in its OneBoard PRO+ with a backlit mechanical keyboard housed in an aluminum case. The keyboard—designed to be used both as an Android system and a normal keyboard for your PC or Mac—comes with a power adapter and cable, a PC-line connect cable with DVI connector on one side and HDMI plus USB on the other side, an HDMI cable, and a DIY accessory tool box. The RK3288 SoC uses quad ARM Cortex-A17 processors and a powerful ARM Mali-T764 GPU. It is known to have cost around $40 per chip.
Rockchip’s RK3288 application processor has also powered two sub-$150 Chromebooks from Haier and Hisense and a Chrome stick from Asus called Chromebit that implements a set-top Chrome computer in an HDMI dongle. These design wins have established the RK3288 SoC as one of the fastest ARM processors in tablet and notebook computers.
Rockchip’s RK3288 is powering the Asus Chromebit dongle
In retrospect, China’s SoC underdogs came to adopt the network-on-chip technology for digitally packetizing information between IP blocks within an SoC die just a couple of years after silicon behemoths like Qualcomm, Samsung and TI. So according to the sequential steps for new technology adoption, as explained in Geoffrey Moore’s “Crossing the Chasm” business bestseller, the companies like Rockchip could be considered early adopters of the crucial network-on-chip technology in SoC designs.
That helps to understand the transformation of China chipmakers from SoC design wannabe’s to mainstream silicon players. The fabless chip firms in China have been working relentlessly for over a decade to earn an identity. However, after they began to bet aggressively on new IP products like the FlexNoC interconnect fabric, they started to win design breakthroughs they have been longing for since the early 2000s.
Take Rockchip’s SoC journey as testament to how vital investing in semiconductor IP can be for a chipmaker’s technology evolution. The chipmaker from Fuzhou, who first licensed Arteris FlexNoC interconnect IP in summer 2012, had been largely known as a budget SoC supplier for tablets. Last year, it signed a strategic deal with Intel that will allow it access to x86 CPU core IP as well as to Intel’s 3G baseband technology that the world’s largest silicon vendor had acquired after buying Infineon’s wireless unit.
In other words, Rockchip is going to make a leap from the tablet to the smartphone SoC market. That premise also became evident when ARM announced its next-generation Cortex-A72 processor core for smartphones in February this year. Rockchip was among the three licensees that ARM disclosed at the time of announcement of its 64-bit CPU core platform.
According to DigiTimes, Rockchip has showcased smartphones and tablets using Intel processors at the Hong Kong Electronics Fair that was held on April 13 through 16, 2015. Rockchip seems set for exciting times as its bets in licensing world-class IP clearly distinguish it in its quest to develop world-class SoC devices.