MADISON, Wis. — We all know we wouldn't be seeing such rapid growth among China's fabless chip companies if firms like ARM, Imagination Technologies, and Ceva hadn't spread global IPs -- processor, graphics, and modem IPs -- like wildfire.
Now, the competition among the fabless Chinese has gotten so fierce that many local companies are turning their attention to details like mixed-signal IPs, according to an executive at Analog Bits.
Call it Phase II of the IP licensing wave in China.
Until five years ago, according to Mahesh Tirupattur, executive vice president of Analog Bits, many China fablesses were happy to slap onto their SoCs baseline IPs or standards-based IPs (USB or MIPI) -- often provided by foundries like Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) or EDA companies such as Synopsys and Cadence.
Now, many Chinese companies -- all racing for smaller, cheaper, and less power-hungry chip solutions for mobile and IoT devices -- are looking for differentiated IPs in clocking areas, such as phase-locked loops (PLL). "They want extra edge in power, performance, or flexibility such differentiated IPs could enable," said Tirupattur.
Analog Bits (Sunnyvale, Calif.), founded in 1995, is a mixed-signal IP supplier whose product portfolio ranges from clocking, Serdes (Serializer/Deserializer) to interfaces, sensors, and memory. The company hopes to get a jump on competitors by being the first to roll out mixed-signal IPs specifically designed for use by Chinese fablesses.
Analog Bits' initial products designed for China are in the clocking area. The company is offering a new family of licensable core-based PLL products, called C-PLL. "We've made them application specific," said Tirupattur. "We are also offering them with Chinese data sheets," he added, an advantage because the documentation of most Western IPs is done only in English.
Some Chinese customers are looking for an absolutely low-power solution for their IoT devices, while others want higher performance computing solutions or a flexible architecture for audio/video processing, he explained. Depending on customer needs, Analog Bits is providing them with high-performance multi-GHz class Integer PLL, ultra low power -- sub-milliwatt class integer PLL and fine programmable Frac-N PLL, he explained. The company said that "ultra-low jitter PLL" is also coming soon.
With oscillator frequencies of up to 4GHz, members of the C-PLL product family are as small as .01 square mm with power efficiency as low as 0.5mW/GHz, noted the company. The C-PLL cores are initially available on TSMC's 28HPM (high performance for mobile applications) and 28HPC (a compact version of the 28HPM) process nodes, and will be available at other fabs as needed by customers, according to Analog Bits.
Dealing directly with China
Prior to this announcement, Analog Bit did its IP licensing business in China only via OEM partner Cadence. Pointing out that the number of tape-outs in China has substantially grown over the last few years and that TSMC's first 16nm FinFET tape-out was in China (not the West), Analog Bits' Tirupattur explained that the time is ripe to deal with Chinese fabless companies directly.
Unlike Qualcomm, Broadcom, or Marvell, who are already armed with internal design capabilities for mixed-signal IPs, many Chinese fabless chip vendors -- even leading companies such as Huawei or ZTE -- often lack such expertise, explained the Analog Bits executive.
For China's leading chip vendor, Analog Bits will offer mixed-signal IPs in GDSII format. But for a majority of Chinese fablesses, Analog Bits' IPs will come as "design kits." The IPs will be physically integrated into a chip in a clean room at TSMC, explained Tirupattur. He regards this process as a firewall to protect their IPs.
Analog Bits' Tirupattur, however, stressed that just because the clocking IPs have been re-tailored for Chinese fablesses, they shouldn't be seen as inferior-quality or old solutions. "We, in fact, improved the performance of our new China solutions by a couple of notches. We've also lowered the prices."
By simplifying their IPs for vertical markets, making them region-specific, and releasing documentation in the local language, Analog Bits hopes to cast the widest possible net for Chinese fabless companies, with minimum customization. Tirupattur's not-so-secret plan is to hook China fabless companies with these first IP products, after which they might be interested in licensing Analog Bit's other mixed-signal IPs in areas such as Serdes, interfaces, sensors, and memory.