The electronics industry has reached a curious milestone. To remain competitive in the marketplace, many products require the use of ASICs and system-on-chip (SoC) solutions-yet the price of ASIC and SoC development is beyond the resources of many small companies and startups. This is an interesting problem, since much of the promise of SoC is best fulfilled by small companies and startups that can focus on smaller markets.
There are many contributors to the high price of SoC: development tools, ASIC nonrecurring engineering fees, high-priced intellectual property (IP) and the risks associated with developing custom chips. It is not uncommon for the price of ASIC/SoC development alone to be higher than the typical budget for product development in a small company. It is my belief that open-source IP can greatly improve this situation by reducing the high cost of intellectual property.
With open-source IP, the VHDL or Verilog source code is freely available for download, use and improvement. Improvements are folded back into new versions of the core by the core maintainer. Most of the time, users spend only several minutes improving the core by reporting success or, less often, reporting bugs or potential areas of optimization. This engineering time is much less costly than a traditional commercial IP or "build it in house" effort.
Open-source IP has significant differences from traditional IP. For starters, it is designed to be portable across many EDA tools and target architectures, while traditional IP is used on only a small number of platforms. This has the effect of making the design simpler and much more robust, since the design must work reliably "out of the box," so to speak, with little or no fine-tuning for a specific target architecture.
The quality of open-source IP potentially can be much higher than for traditional IP. When the user base of any particular core is large, bugs and other problems can be worked out quickly, effectively and completely.
Some traditional large cores might have an installed user base of a dozen or so customers. That same core, if open-sourced, could have a user base in the hundreds or thousands. This provides much more feedback on the quality of the IP and allows for more improvements. Further, the open-source ideal promotes communication between core users, allowing for fast, helpful response to technical problems.
Open-source IP gives small companies and startups easy access to low-cost intellectual property like CPUs, Ethernet controllers, UARTs, encryption pro-cessors and so on. Using these cores as their foundation, they can add their own logic to create products that can effectively compete with larger, more heavily funded competitors. Without open-source IP, the big companies will get bigger and the small companies will twinkle out of existence.
There will always be a place for high-priced traditional intellectual property, but the time has come to embrace open-source IP as a sound business decision.
David Kessner is Founder of the Rree-IP Project on the web at www.free-ip.com.