When it comes to building edge devices for the internet-of-things (IoT), you don’t want to have to break the bank to prototype an idea before diving into the deep water. At the same time, if your idea is to shrink an edge device down to it’s smallest dimensions, lowest power and lowest cost, you really want to be able to prototype your design with more than a collection of discreet components on a printed circuit board. You want to know that your design can be cost-effectively implemented on a single SoC and you want to know that it’s going to work. So, what’s an inventor / entrepreneur to do?
With the advent of the IoT, Arm started working hard on a vision which they call ‘The path to a trillion connected devices’. As part of this vision Arm knew that it had to vastly increase the number of designs and thus designers that were going to be using Arm processors. One of their first strategies to enable this (circa 2015) was to announce a Fast-track license to make it easier for designers to use their Cortex-M0 processor. The M0 is Arm’s smallest core which also happens to be ideal for low power, low cost IoT edge devices.
Around the same time, Mentor Graphics acquired Tanner EDA, a software company specializing in low total-cost-of-ownership (TCO) design automation software for designing analog and mixed-signal designs. To Arm and Mentor, this was a match made in heaven.
By 2016 the parties were working together to offer a design solution that would enable companies, regardless of size, to be able to quickly and cheaply design, prototype and implement IoT SoC devices. In 2017, Arm went on to announce a zero-dollar license fee for their Cortex-M0 and Cortex-M3 processors and subsystems and added design services to help companies who had never done an IC design before, paving the way for individuals and smaller companies to get their feet wet in the growing IoT market space.
The beauty of the ARM – Mentor relationship is that the IP provided by ARM is well known and proven by 100’s of companies with over 20 billion Cortex-M0 and Cortex-M3 processors shipped to date. Similarly, Tanner EDA has a long history of developing CAD tools for analog/mixed-signal designers since its start as a business unit of Tanner Research in 1988. From the beginning, their vision has been to provide designers with easy to learn, highly interoperable tools with a low TCO. A perfect match for design teams wanting to break into the IoT market.
If you’ve got a great IoT idea and this is starting to wet your appetite, you should view a recently recorded webinar hosted by Arm and Mentor (link below). The webinar begins with Phil Burr, senior product marketing manager of Arm, describing some of the key attributes of both the Cortex-M0 and Cortex-M3 processors and associated subsystems that lets designers quickly assemble analog sensors with Arm processors and embedded software.
Phil goes on to explains Arm’s DesignStart Eval and DesignStart Pro programs. The DesignStart Eval program is used to design and then prototype a SoC using a FPGA-based solution with real hardware / software debug capabilities. Assuming success, the next move is to use the DesignStart Pro program which takes the design into a real SoC. In both cases, there are no ‘up-front’ licensing fees for using the Arm processors (M0 or M3). Business is done through a royalty-based model when the design reaches certain volumes indicating success.
The second half of the webinar is presented by Jeff Miller, lead strategist managing Tanner’s analog/mixed-signal products at Mentor, a Siemens business. Jeff picks up where Phil left off and takes the audience through a demonstration of how one might put together a typical IoT edge device using the Tanner tools and Arm processors. Jeff starts with how to use the Tanner tools to first design an analog MEMS-based pressure sensor and then integrate it with the Arm Cortex-M0 processor and subsystem using the Arm Advanced Peripheral Bus (APB). Jeff gives a nice step-by-step overview of how each of the various parts, MEMS and associated analog circuitry, analog amplifier, A-to-D converter, and digital control blocks are modeled and assembled as a sub-system and then how that sub-system is integrated and simulated with the Cortex-M0 core and embedded software. Jeff’s presentation focuses mainly on design and verification of the system and leaves the implementation presumably for another future webinar.
Core to the Tanner’s design solution is the ability to use a variety of different modeling techniques that lets designers quickly assemble and test their ideas through simulations. Jeff makes use of SoftMEMS’s finite element modeling (FEM) software to simulate the MEMS-based pressure sensing device. The output from this simulation is then used to create a VerilogA model which is employed in a mixed-mode simulation using Tanner’s T-Spice spice simulator and Mentor’s ModelSim logic simulator.
T-Spice handles the MEMS VerilogA model and analog circuitry (amplifier and A-to-D convertor) while ModelSim handles the Verilog RTL model for the sensor’s controller block. Finally, this subsystem is replaced with a ‘stand-in’ behavioral model that allows the subsystem to be simulated with the Arm Cortex-M0 core and an embedded C program all within ModelSim. It’s a very nice demo of how complex systems can be assembled with relative ease, absolutely.
The nice part is that all of this can be done on a reasonable budget and could be used to prototype your design to the point where it could be shown to investors for your first round of funding. From there the sky’s the limit. I would encourage you to watch the webinar for yourself and learn just how easy it is to get your first IoT SoC up and running. In the meantime, if you are interested in exploring further what Arm and Mentor have to offer, you can check out the links below for more information.
Webinar: Fastest, Lowest-Cost Route to Developing Mixed Signal SoCs
Arm Cortex-M products and services
Mentor Tanner products and services