Hoping to preserve its position as the leading 16/32-bit RISC-core supplier, ARM Ltd. has named United Microelectronics Corp. -- Taiwan's second-largest chip manufacturer -- as its first partner under a new foundry program.
The deal is intended to provide a broad base of semiconductor and system designers with easy access to the ARM processor.
Previously, ARM operated under a direct-licensing program that allowed it to maintain stringent quality standards for the use of its IP. However, the rapid growth of the foundry model -- as well as mounting competition in the licenseable processor-core space -- has led ARM and others, like MIPS Technologies Inc., to accept foundries as a viable distribution channel. MIPS last year aligned with Singapore's Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing Pte Ltd. to boost its market penetration.
"We're experiencing a strong demand for ARM solutions from foundry customers," said Reynette Au, vice president of worldwide marketing for ARM, Cambridge, England. "Many of these customers are aggressively pursuing advanced SOC designs in emerging market segments, and our partnership with an industry leading semiconductor foundry like UMC will enable these companies to get into production with ARM core-based designs as soon as possible."
Indeed, the processor-core is among the IP elements most demanded by UMC's foundry customers, said Jim Kupec, president of UMC (USA) and head of worldwide marketing and sales for the Hsinchu-based foundry. UMC is initially licensed to manufacture the ARM7TDMI core.
Though it's still by far the most widely licensed processor, the ARM core's dominance is being challenged by a new breed of foundry-independent configurable processors that deliver similar performance for less cost and risk. London-based ARC Cores Ltd., for example, recently introduced its third-generation 32-bit user-customizable processor with DSP extensions. The core is being positioned to undermine ARM's strength in the cellular communications market -- it's aimed squarely at 3G wireless designs.
And earlier this week, reports surfaced of a 32-bit RISC-based core being offered for free by an Internet-based organization called OpenCores.
ARM's new foundry program may be a way to maintain its mass appeal by lowering the barriers to obtaining its technology.
At the other end of the spectrum, the company is also moving from a chipless toward a fabless model, by offering complete system-on-a-chip solutions built around its processor core. ARM has been pushing its on-chip peripheral bus technology as a de facto industry standard for connecting multiple IP blocks. And ARM recently began marketing a library of peripheral IP, development tools, and application software in conjunction with its ASIC design services.