Instead of choosing the same big-vendor, star IP that most competitors may pick by default, smarter firms will seek out and commit to what might be technically-superior IP products from smaller vendors/partners who will offer both deeper and broader service and support.
A good example is regarding microprocessors and controllers, the heart of most systems and usually the first, most critical system design choice.
Consider a deeply embedded system that needs the power of a 32-bit processor. Much like that saying from the 1980′s that when choosing PCs “nobody gets fired for buying an IBM,” choosing a processor from the leading processor company is probably the easiest, safest choice, and it’s certainly an undeniably fine product with an extremely effective ecosystem. But making this choice might mean missing an opportunity for differentiation in a competitive market where every advantage is required for success.
The IP portal sites list many 32-bit processor core options beyond the leading processor company, with Chip Estimate and Design and Reuse each returning nearly 300 results for such a search. More significantly, I count almost 30 different providers of these products. Certainly some of these vendors offer a product, support, or licensing terms—or perhaps even all three—that could give the smart designer a critical edge.
Six of these stand out as being especially popular based on my recent visits with designers in California and Asia:
- the AndesCore from Andes Technology,
- the BA22 developed by Beyond Semiconductor and available from CAST, Inc. (disclosure: I work for CAST),
- the ColdFire from IPextreme
- the eSi-3250 from EnSilica,
- the LEON3 from Aeroflex Gaisler, and
- the MIPS 4KS and others from MIPS Technologies.
How can you determine if options like these have sufficient benefits to outweigh the risk of not going with the leading processor company? Comparisons can be tricky, but there are a few key points to start with.
The technical suitability and potential advantages of course depend on the detailed needs of your system. A good IP sales team will help you articulate the relevant characteristics of your project and make sure their product will work well before selling it to you.
Quick comparisons of the performance and operating characteristics is made easier through the publication of well accepted power consumption and speed measures, like the CoreMark performance and CSiBC code density standards. Be sure, however, to look deeper to fully understand the specific configuration and technology details behind each vendor’s figures compared to that of your own target system.
Ecosystems for programming and system development aids are a hot processor marketing topic. Be sure that the basics are covered: effective software programming tools such as the GNU tool chain, JTAG debugging, and ports of the RTOS or OS you want to use. A graphical IDE, support from tool vendors like Keil or Lauterbach, and eval/dev board kits are extras that can help further accelerate development.
Licensing terms and actual costs can vary dramatically. For example, some vendors rely on royalty streams for their profits, while others have simpler up-front licensing fees with no royalties. What’s best for you depends on your specific product and market plans.
Finally, credibility of the processor and the vendor are both crucial. For the former, look to successful use by other customers with applications similar to your own. For the latter, look for business longevity and general reputation, backed by your own experiences with the provider’s sales and engineering people. Try to extrapolate from a vendor’s pre-sale support how effective their integration help and other technical support services will be after you purchase from them.
The examples of 32-bit processor alternatives I listed earlier all compare favorably with the leading processor company’s products in these factors; any might be the one to give you the extra technical, timeframe, or cost edge you need to make your product more competitive.
The same is true of most other areas of semiconductor IP. Now that our industry embraces the use of third-party IP, the smartest designers will get a major payback from putting up-front effort into investigating the very best IP for their specific needs, whether that initially seems like the “safe” choice or not.
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