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Fit-for-purpose IoT ASICs are about more than cost

Fit-for-purpose IoT ASICs are about more than cost
by Don Dingee on 04-06-2016 at 4:00 pm

We’ve been saying for a while that it looks like there is a resurgence in design starts for ASICs targeting the IoT. A recent webinar featuring speakers from ARM and Open Silicon (and moderated by Daniel Nenni) affirms this trend, and provides some insight on how these designs may differ from typical microcontrollers.

One of my first friends and mentors in the electronics industry who was an electromechanical packaging wizard always said, “Hammer to shape, file to fit, paint to match.” Just about anything can be custom fabricated, including a chip these days. Does it make sense to build custom parts for IoT projects? (If that question sounds familiar, we covered another webinar from different vendors on the same topic last month – now we hear from ARM.)

ARM has always been up to the challenge of what Tim Menasveta, Cortex-M Product Manager, describes as fit-for-purpose designs. A good example of the type of design envisioned for the IoT is the Beetle test chip, leveraging a Cortex-M3 and a Cordio radio IP block and designed to run mbed OS. Tim tossed an interesting factoid: the mbed OS developer base has grown to over 150,000 developers at the close of 2015.

But is this approach cost-effective for moderate volume IoT starts? One advantage is IoT parts are usually implemented on mature nodes. ARM is also pitching the idea of multi-project wafers to get to engineering samples for less than one might think – $16k on 180nm, and $42k on 65nm according to ARM data.

That is just fab costs however – ARM is, after all, in the IP licensing business. To help get licensing costs down, ARM has created DesignStart around the Cortex-M0 core. DesignStart offers a Cortex-M0 design and simulation package free of charge for evaluation purposes to registered users. When the design is ready for fabrication, ARM offers a simplified “fast track” commercial license for the Cortex-M0 priced at $40k. (No hints on pricing for Cordio.)

Access to processor IP does not a chip make. That is where Open Silicon comes in, with turnkey ASIC experience. With their Spec2Chip IoT ASIC platform, Open Silicon is trying to be a one-stop shop for IoT developers. Pradeep Sukumaran, Sr. Solutions Architect at Open Silicon, illustrated how they are leveraging a custom FPGA board for rapid prototyping. FPGAs offer huge benefits in IoT prototyping. Hardware IP can run with actual software at a relatively high clock speed – 50 MHz is achievable with newer FPGAs, even higher under favorable conditions.

Sukumaran makes a compelling case for BOM reduction with custom chip design, but I see high value in the overall IoT system solution experience Open Silicon brings to the table. My talk at the upcoming IEEE Electronic Design Process Symposium later this month centers on how designing and optimizing chips for actual IoT software is critical to building trust into devices.

I’m finding that IoT innovation is coming from makers – grab a module, write some code, take some measurements. My old friend and mentor would have appreciated this approach. Where previous generations spent time eliminating chips and passives and reducing printed circuit board layer counts, new generations will be after optimized IoT ASICs to not only reduce costs but to differentiate solutions from what others with merchant chips are doing.

The ARM environment that Open Silicon is working with offers a wide range of software and scalability. If for some reason a Cortex-M0 doesn’t offer enough performance, moving up the core ladder to other Cortex-M variants is straightforward. Spec2Chip looks to risk and schedule for IoT teams, whether inside a larger firm or at a startup.

To see this entire presentation plus the Q&A portion where Daniel asks several probing questions of both ARM and Open Silicon, register for the archived webinar here:

Can a Custom SoC Revolutionize Your Next IoT Product?


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