Not your father’s Tensilica

Not your father’s Tensilica
by Paul McLellan on 11-14-2011 at 5:27 pm

 Tensilica has been around for quite a long time. Their key technology is a system for generating a custom processor, the idea being to better match the requirement of the processor for performance, power and area as compared with a fully-general purpose control processor (such as one of the ARM processors). Of course generating a processor on its own isn’t much use: how would you program it? So the system also generates custom compilers, virtual platform models and so on. Everything that you need to be able to use the processor.

I’ve said before in the context of ARM that what is most valuable is not the microprocessor design itself, it is the ecosystem that surrounds it. That is the barrier to entry, not the fact that ARM does a reasonable job of implementing processors.

In the early days of Tensilica, this technology was what they sold. Early adopters who needed a custom processor could buy the system, design their processor, put it on an SoC, program it using the compiler and model. ARC (now part of Synopsys via Virage) was the other reasonably well-known competition. I remember talking to them once and they admitted that lots of people really wanted a fixed processor because they wanted to know the performance in advance, for example.

Tensilica found the same thing. There isn’t a huge market of people wanting to design their own processor. But there is a huge market of people who want a programmable block that has certain characteristics, and a market for people who want a given function implemented without having to write a whole load of Verilog to create a fully-customized solution.

So Tensilica have been taking their own technology and using it to create blocks that are easier to use. Effectively they are the custom processor design experts so that their customer don’t have to be. The first application that got a lot of traction was 24-bit audio.

More recently, there is the ongoing transition to LTE (which stands for Long Term Evolution, talk about an uninformative and generic name) for 4G wireless. This is very complicated, and will be high-volume (on the handset side anyway, base-station not so much).

Difficult to use but flexible technologies often end up finding a business like this. The real experts are in the company and it is easier for them to “eat their own dogfood” then it is to teach other people to become black-belt users.

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