TOKYO Texas Instruments Inc. has taken a license for NEC Corp.'s V850E embedded RISC core. The move gives TI a RISC platform with which to woo new customers and gives NEC a means to gain incremental revenue and widen the architecture's customer base.
TI plans to incorporate the core into its TimeBuilder portfolio, a repository of processor cores, peripherals, communication modules and analog blocks and methodologies for DSP-based chip designs. The core initially will be fabricated on TI's 0.21-micron (drawn) process technology and will move to its 0.18-micron process later this year.
The licensing deal reaffirms the shift among ASIC vendors toward a wider selection of MPU core offerings as they seek to draw more business.
"Some customers want it. It's that simple," said John Stich, chief marketing officer of semiconductor sales and marketing for Texas Instruments Japan Ltd., explaining why TI had licensed the NEC core. Several of the customers in question are makers of hard-disk drives, he said.
Indeed, hard drives already represent a significant portion of TI's DSP business, as do modems and cellular phones. An NEC spokesman said products shipping with embedded V850 devices include hard drives as well as telecommunications and networking equipment.
The V850 CPU is a five-stage pipeline Harvard architecture with dedicated instruction and data buses. It includes a 16/32-bit instruction-set format, which is said to use minimal overhead to interpret compressed code; an interrupt controller; and support for a 32 x 32 hardware multiplier.
While the margins for hard-drive components are razor-thin and competition is fierce, OEMs sell their products worldwide and demand large volumes from their suppliers. "The market is tough, but nobody will ignore it," said Michito Kimura, a semiconductor analyst for IDC Japan.
To expand their market share, IC vendors are leaning toward a cafeteria-style approach to MPU cores that lets customers choose among homegrown architectures as well as offerings licensed from other companies. Both NEC and TI, for example, also offer the ARM7TDMI which, like the V850, is popular for use in disk drives and cellular phones. And in recent months, Fujitsu and Toshiba separately announced additions of the ARM7 to their MPU core libraries.
Terms of the agreement between NEC and TI were not disclosed, and it is still unclear whether the deal will open an intellectual-property (IP) trading channel between the companies. Stich said he could not comment on whether the licensing deal might lead to further IP transactions. The NEC spokesman characterized it as a onetime licensing arrangement.
NEC, for one, has been keen on acquiring IP from the outside and has gone as far as to assign an IP manager for each of its three new system-on-a-chip business divisions. Those restructured divisions, which formally take effect April 1, will address system-on-a-chip requirements in consumer-electronics, PCs and communications applications.
"A fundamental emphasis is IP and market segmentation, and we're driving the business based on IP. That's one of the primary reasons why we decided to restructure," said Hitoshi Yoshizawa, chief manager of the system-ASIC division of NEC's System LSI Operations Unit.
At NEC, IP sales are still evaluated case-by-case, but the frequency of such deals could be on the rise. "Tough times at the moment are making people think about this [avenue for added business]. It makes sense for companies" to leverage the earnings potential of their IP, the NEC spokesman said.
The TI licensing deal represents NEC's second such agreement with an ASIC company. Less than two years ago, Lucent Technologies licensed the V850 core for hard-disk drive controllers and other applications.
NEC and Lucent have been working together for years on process-technology development. Most recently, NEC licensed its embedded-DRAM technology to Lucent.