What happens when everyone is designing their SoCs with cores licensed from ARM? Where's the differentiation?
Time was when a great many companies had their own processor architectures. It was a pinnacle of electronic and semiconductor achievement and many digital engineers wanted to have a crack at designing one and feeling the glow of watching software execute on an electronic machine of their own devising.
As we know, success breeds volume and volume provides cash to keep chip development riding the down escalator that is Moore's Law.
Intel has been successful as has ARM. Other architectures are available, as well as multiple implementers. And then there is the application-specific specialization of processors for such things as graphics rendering and other activities.
The system-on-chip era, where the processor is just one part of a larger application-specific chip, changed the business dynamic. Gradually, more and more companies have started to gain time-to-market and cost advantages over their competition by licensing a pre-developed processor core from MIPS, ARC, ARM, Imagination and some others. But of these, ARM has been the most successful by far.
But what happens when everyone is designing their SoCs with cores licensed from ARM? Where is the differentiation? Where is the time to market advantage?
One could argue that there is scope for differentiation in how the system-chip is put together, and that the cores are like the bricks of a house. For example, Nvidia has built a quad-core Cortex-A15 system-chip for mobile applications called Tegra 4, which integrates a fifth processor for low-power standby operation. Samsung's Exynos 5 Octa is also a quad-core Cortex-A15 design but one that adopts fully the "big-little" power saving approach with a quad-core Cortex-A7. But is that enough differentiation?
If you are using ARM-defined cores and ARM processor optimization packages to develop your chips. you are essentially on the same time-to-market line as everybody else in the world, unless you are one of the lead partners that helps ARM develop the core in the first place. And if you are helping develop the core in the first place maybe you would do better developing that for yourself alone under an architecture license.
This argument could be one of the reasons we are starting to see a rush of ARM architecture licensees coming forward, although it is interesting to note this is predominantly (exclusively?) with companies based in the western hemisphere.
The best known is probably Apple. But Qualcomm has also developed its own ARM-compatible processing architecture called Krait. Broadcom recently announced it had taken architectural licensees for both the ARMv7 and the 64-bit capable ARMv8 instruction set architectures. As ARM moves up to 64-bit computing, the number of architectural licenses seems to have increased with Applied Micro and Cavium both going down the route that allows differentiation at both the processor core and the system-chip level.
Good discussion of the issues, Peter.
What I keep hearing is that ARM is putting out so many new cores and architectures like big.little so rapidly, there is little need or opportunity to differentiate with a custom core.
That said I am sure top tier chip designers like Broadcom can find ways to create value added SoCs with features that may require or benefit with a little tinkering at the processor core level.
Meanwhile, it's an interesting question of where ARM will go next in search for its own growth beyond processor and graphics cores. RF (starting in IoT) as East suggested in his interview with Junko? Or...?
In my opinion, one reason why ARM has been and will continue to be successful is the cost saving on development of software support tools, such as toolchain, IDE etc. With so many open source tools available for ARM core, this is going to be a significant factor in making a decision to go for designing your own core. Also, out of school, CS and EE kids these days are familiar with ARM software tools, so better trained manpower is availble in the market. With a brand new core, you have to spend time, effort and money to introduce it to university programs to gather a critical mass of engineers who'd prefer it in their design. That, or a killer device, which completely outclasses an ARM core in performance and efficiency to displace these advantages of using ARM core.
I think the power/perf numbers for Intel's Clovertrail and Medfield refute ARM's putative power efficiency advantage.
But other major take away is that in terms of power efficiency in mobile form factors, the core is not that significant an energy consumer. Most detailed power analysis show that:
1. the screen
2. the DRAM
3. wireless PHY,
4. Network protocol processor
are the top consumers of energy roughly in that order.
Consequently, a low-cost, reasonably performant CPU is desirable for which ARM is a good fit.
As was previously stated, ARM's fairly mature software stack (and EDA stack)also make it appealing despite the fact that the ARM ISA is crufty; it's 20+ years old and can't really be called RISC anymore.
Nevertheless, ARM is cheap to license at any level and the royalty payments per chip are modest.
IMHO, the core no longer provides competitive advantage; it's the other accelerators and PHY ASICs (and the tools that enable developers to leverage them) that will differentiate SoCs.
Excellent points all. I am with Danny.
These are reasons why:
1)Qualcomm is buying display companies.
2)The IP battle is moving to PowerVR versus Mali versus Others
3) What else is on-board the SoC including the modem counts for a lot.
4) 3-D packaging and TSVs for maximizing memory bandwidth and minimizing power consumption of that bandwidth is high priority.
Escalating down Moore’s law thru valley of CMOS low cost curve, & back up again to Finfet and what comes after? ARM royalties are dampening just like industry has dampened running from commercial industrial art smack into an applied science.
ARM will do what ARM does, to license, too see what sticks. Some within community call this over licensing. Where an architectural license offers spring board to differentiated avoiding placed into parity. And if done well, can hold and migrate a producer base. This is not core of memory, ostorage controller or M2M network.
Some would also caution anointing on some designs parlayed by ARM; given the design economics of licensee design fabrication, or specific system or IP reference.
ARM does pick from time to time and incumbent architectural licensee’s who can predict too stay ahead of their game, can stay ahead in the game. Often this takes a focus on unique and differentiated segments. Always access and stability in supply whether foundry or captive is requisite.
ARM exponential strategy is to drive licensing into developing Asia and East European markets. Prior to this strategy ARM attempted Intel head to head and got wacked. A15 brought in base holders for smart phone and gained ground in tablet. ARM claiming ability to displace 25% Intel share in notebook lost on no product before the claim. ARM server makes first base. First gen open integration smart TV, outside vertically integrated consumer electronics firm with ARM license, Intel wins on Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge end of run stocks priced below cost.
Finally there is the issue of ARM Intel-lectual insurance. Want to be ahead of ARM platform initiatives that are head-to-head with Intel, fickle ARM, requires first 1st mover advantage. To be smart and crafty with a superior design and customer reference that an architectural license still provides as the spring board to somewhere unique.
Having an ARM architectural license has its advantages, but is by no means a guarantee of success. For example, Marvell doesn't seem to be doing so well these days compared to Qualcomm, Samsung, and nVidia despite having their XScale variant of ARM architecture since 2006. Marvell obtained XScale from Intel, who didn't have much success with ARM despite having an architecture license. And where did Intel get that license? From DEC, where it was called StrongARM. Anyone see a pattern here? :-)
I notice the article doesn't mention Microsoft, who obtained an ARM architectural license in July 2010. It's early to make an assessment, but who knows if they'll ever be able to make use of it. According to Wikipedia, the WART Surface uses nVidia Tegra 3.
As has always been the case, the important thing for a manufacturer is to come out with the right product at the right time, and be able to manufacture the right number to meet the window's demand. Designing in a new SoC is a huge risk factor whether you do it yourself or someone does it for you, but that's "tech biz".
There was a time when the number of personal computer companies numbered in the dozens - maybe hundreds. Some ran CP/M, CP/M86, AppleDOS, Pick MS-DOS, PC-DOS and a variety of customized versions of many of OS's.
Since that time, there has been so much consolidation and standardization that the difference between PC offerings is more about marketing than about actual differentiation. The same will happen in the ARM market. In the end, there will be more ARM providers than thee are PC providers because there are actual market differences to build off of, it none the less, ARM will follow a very similar path as did the PC industry.
Not sure Qualcom and Broadcom are hunting same target (litteral translation of french expression).
Qualcom's Krait CPU architecture matters for chip buyer or final customer, while Broadcom's one matters for Broadcom at least for SoC I had to play with: What Broadcom offered me what a SoC with right network protocols/interfaces features, plus ability to run a standard OS to drive said features.
Always regarding Broadcom, I wonder if developping a new CPU architecture while some different in-house ones already exist is that difficult ? (for experts, of course)
@ Peter, dont bite the hand (ARM) that feeds you. ARM is going to destroy the Semi industry by commoditizing before dying a brutal death. You talk of Apple and QCom winning. QCOM is winning not because of ARM core, but it can sell silicon at cost and making profit on licensing. We all know how Apple is winning. Again, not because of ARM core. That leaves a bunch of ARM losers such as Nvidia, Marvell, BRCM, STE, STM, etc. etc. Time is ticking for these losers to get and so is for ARM.
Of the total spend on semiconductors, what percentage do you think goes to processor cores outside of the PC industry?
It's okay though, I have always thought myself in the Electronics industry, not the Semiconductor industry.
The argument in business is always compete with yourself because if you don't someone else will.
If ARM is not part of the success or necessary to the success of Apple, Qualcomm and others, one wonders why they pay out the big bucks to ARM at all. Why not invent their own architectures or license an alternative?
So if ARM is going to destroy the semiconductor industry....who, in your opinion, will pick up the pieces and be ultimate winners?
I would not agree that ARM is going to destroy the Industry. I do believe that the ARM universe will go through a lot of consolidation and drop-out. Most (if not all) successful industries do. It's part of the natural evolution of an industry.
Whether Apple or Qualcomm are winning because of ARM is a different question. The fact that ARM processors hit the right performance level, power frugality and cost targets allowed Apple to create their phones and tablets. Of course, Apple's phones and tablets have grown that market need so each begets the other. ARM and Apple are both an integral part of each others' success.
However, if not ARM, then perhaps it would have been MIPs or a low-power AMD offering. The need would have hit at some point and someone would have found or made a solution if ARM weren't there to provide it. The timing may have been different, but not by much.
Big bucks is a subjective term. So let's quantify it.
In 2011 ARM's annual revenue was $785 million. In 2012 it will probably be about $900 million.
A combination of Apple, Samsung, Qualcomm and many others, are voluntarily stuffing that much money into ARM's pockets.
Would it be a good time to point out "The Linux Factor"?
The reality is that something as complex as an O/S, a core, etc. ... which are increasing in complexity, requires an entity to take care of it. Somewhere to go for technical support, someone to ensure accuracy, roadmap, etc. Someone to yell at when things don't work.
For the foreseeable future, that is going to be Arm for a large portion of the processor space. You are right, ARMs revenue is not enourmous. For that reason, its a good ROI for licensese to pay them so that they can concentrate on what they do.
Apple is not a processor company. They are an ecosystem company. Samsung is a consumer products company with a semiconductor company. Qualcomm provides communications, etc. While the processor core is important, at the end of the day, it is not the business these companies are in, it is an enabler.
That is what Peter's article is about. For those who have the resources to try to differentiate their core business through a processor license they will. I.e. Apple, etc. For those where the core does not differentiate the product, i.e. a microcontroller, then they will stick to ARM as the core is not seen as a differentiating feature in that market.
Very good synthesis of the CPU core market, Peter! I really appreciate.
I am just surprised by the comments made: many high level position about the evolution of the CPU market, the SC industry and so on... but nobody has simply noticed that a great % of ARM success is due to the solid ECOSYSTEM that the company has built, year after year.
Building such an ECOSYSTEM will be pretty difficult to duplicate, would take 10+ years... and is probably the reason why ARM will stay the leader, and consolidate.
Peter : a thoughtful discussion, perhaps you would like to comment / write more in future about following scenarios :
1. Apple & QC depending less and less on ARM / "Imagination" and doing much more themselves from ground up in order to distinguish
2. The second tier ( nVidia / Samsung ) shifting their strategy ( i,e. playing the more cores game to going the same way as Apple / QC ie, improving on ARM design )
3. Would Intel ever develop a credible low - power alternative to ARM and gain marketshare ( even if at a lower margin than x86 monopoly )
4. How about up and comers like Media Tek / Hua wei ? which of above 3 scenarios would suit them best?
I would say, yes.
Dual-core is a must as the time progresses(less than a year, I guess).
The users of the mobile are performing more work on the device than ever before and hence having a 2 core processor in the device is very lucrative for the responsiveness of the device to keep the user keep using the device(mobile, pads, ...) for a longer time in day.
For better or worse, the computer sector became a commodity. From high-performance down to tablets and phones and embedded systems there just isn't a lot of space for hardware differentiation. Linux, contrary to what some people think, has taken over under the covers---partly because of price but mostly because it is flexible and simple both in the technical and business sense.
In order to compete Intel will have to figure out a way to commoditize it's products, by making low-power, highly integrated and inexpensive SoCs. They certainly aren't there now---if you want to argue that point, please show me an Intel platform capable of running Linux that sells for $30. ARM can do that, but Intel currently can't yet.
I think the ARM family will continue and grow, as expected it is moving into the 64 bit world and will continue to multiply the cores and increase processor clock speed. On a slightly related note: Digital Equipment Corporation was a major player for quite awhile but fell prey to a number of factors (mostly self inflicted IMHO). DEC got complacent, grew too many layers (adding cost), ignored the PC market for too long, was too slow to react to market forces/needs; these are some of the reasons why DEC is not more. I am sure there were other reasons as well, I never worked at DEC but loved the company anyway (had a lot of friends that worked there). It was sad to see them fail, but the lessons learned can and should be applied to ARM and any other company. I like the comment about competing with yourself, that makes a lot of sense!