Rumors of the SoC's impending death have been popping up in the semiconductor and systems industries. Are they exaggerated? Not entirely. A decreasing number of companies are investing in system-on-chips (SoCs). Likewise, the number of concurrent SoC projects that typical R&D organizations can undertake is shrinking. The reason: soaring design cost and poor schedule predictability.That makes SoC development increasingly difficult to justify. But does this foreshadow the SoC's complete demise? I doubt it, but these factors will surely chase more players from the market and drive greater use of alternative solutions.
A look inside the venture capital community reveals a bellwether of the trend. During the past five years, a declining number of firms have shown interest in investing in SoC start-ups (although a lot of money has poured into programmable devices aiming to unseat Xilinx and Altera). Only when the SoC's risks can be significantly mitigated and revenue projections credibly defended will investors even consider the opportunity. Even then, it's a tough sell.
Up until a few years ago, a customer of mine (chip company) routinely had six or seven concurrent SoC projects underway. Today, the number is a mere three, with a combined development cost of is $150 million to $200 million. To justify the investment, the three products must garner more than a billion dollars in sales revenue. The company has a good chance of meeting its targets, because it consistently hits its development schedules, but there is no guarantee that the expected volumes will fully materialize. In other words, even with best-in-class R&D execution and predictability, market uncertainty makes it a risky bet.
Systems companies developing their own chips (ASICs) encountered a similar situation starting in the second half of the 1990s. High cost, complexity and risk made ASIC development prohibitive except among those whose end-products boasted high profit margins and volume. The requirement persists today. Not surprisingly, many systems houses still developing their own ASICs struggle to rationalize the cost, especially those with poor schedule predictability.
Engineering labor consumes much of the SoC's development cost—team sizes typically range from 100 to 200 engineers. Such large teams result directly from the inability of R&D productivity to keep pace with growing design complexity. Simply put, to offset falling relative-productivity, more engineers are needed to achieve the throughput required to meet time-to-market constraints. More engineers means higher cost–although many companies attempt to reduce costs by off-shoring development.
Cost mitigation tactics notwithstanding, I suspect that we will continue witnessing the decline of the (dedicated) SoC, except among those companies boasting both market vision and consistent R&D excellence, which means delivering high-margin product on-time and within budget to high volume markets.
Ronald Collett is president and CEO of Numetrics Management Systems, Inc.