The Internet of Things (IoT) is clearly the buzzword of the moment, and like many catchy phrases it also tends to mean what you want it to mean, rolling up some things that exist like the automotive market or industrial automation, along with markets for things like wearables and healthcare that are largely in the future. But however you look at it, it is clear that a lot of devices are going to be connected to the internet and so it is big opportunity even if the estimates of its market size are all over the place.
eSilicon have been looking at the success factors for IoT. They discovered that all markets can be broken down as:
- lifestyle, home, mobility (automotive), healthcare
- manufacturing, logistics, retail, services
- buildings, city, infrastructure, services
- communications, security
The (semiconductor) market leaders right now are automotive, communications, industrial and home-automation. These are segments where products are being designed and shipped now rather than just appearing as a colored bar on somebody’s 2020 powerpoint slide.
eSilicon’s approach to the IoT market is two-fold. Firstly, to automate as much as possible of the process of choosing a semiconductor process and supplier, getting quotes, getting prototypes, ramping to volume. Gartner reckon that over 50% of IoT solutions will be provided by startups less than 3 years old. Startups do not have whole departments dedicated to getting quotes or managing production operations and so reducing the friction is very important.
The second area of importance is IP. There are a number of factors that are important for IoT depending on the application, but one that is pretty much universal is power. Many IoT devices are battery powered. At the very least the battery can only be recharged or changed occasionally and, in some cases, never: the battery the product ships with has to last the lifetime of the product.
Standard power reduction techniques such as clock gating and power down will continue to be important. eSilicon have a lot of experience given the wide range of chips they build for a broad spectrum of customers. Almost any feature you can think of they already have in production or at least have seen silicon. See the table above.
Most IoT devices seem to contain a lot of memory and as a result the most important area of IP are ultra-low-power memories. For example the SoC analyzed below has 96% of the chip is memory.
eSilicon has done lots of designs incorporating 3rd party IP. They don’t design their own microprocessors, for example. But one area that eSilicon does invest in, is building differentiated memory IP. And in the context of IoT, ‘differentiated’ means ultra power (ULP), both during operation, and, especially during the long periods of time when the chip is idle, waiting for something interesting to happen. They have ULP memories available in many processes, which is important since IoT SoCs are largely not going to be designed on the most bleeding edge processes due to cost, difficulty of incorporating analog and RF, and possible sensor integration.
For many applications such as automotive the characterization of the SoCs and so also the IP contained within, is over an extended range. Your car has to work in both a Minnesota winter and an Arizona summer, and not just when the chip ships but also 20 years later. So it is not good enough to build memories that look good in typical operating conditions, they have to cover the extremes too. For example, eSilicon have delivered memory IP that is qualified up to 175°C operation.
In networking applications, the normal sorts of memories used in other applications are not enough. For packet matching they also need ternary content addressable memories (TCAMs). These allow loading and matching through “don’t care” masks. eSilicon is the largest supplier of TCAMs in the market, having delivered solutions over many years from 180nm down to 14nm and all stations in between.
On March 11th fromm 9am to 9.30am pacific, eSilicon are presenting a webinar Winning the IoT Race with the Right Chip: Customizing Memory IP for IoT Applications. It will presumably also be available for replay later like all other eSilicon webinars (which you can find here). More details on the webinar, including a link for registration, are here.