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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
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...?