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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
@ 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.
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)