NEW YORK A little-known British startup called Vulcan ASIC Ltd. is expected to make a splash at the Microprocessor Forum in San Jose, Calif., next month when it unveils a Java hardware core called Moon.
Vulcan's twist, which it hopes will jump-start a still-sleepy Java hardware market, is that Moon won't be sold as an off-the-shelf part. "The whole idea is retargetable IP [intellectual property] from scratch," said Mark Goodson, joint managing director of Vulcan (Royston, England), which began operation in 1996 as a design consultancy.
The 32-bit Moon core directly executes Java, in native mode, in hardware. Vulcan officials claim Moon uses one-third the silicon real estate of the layout of the picoJava II core. PicoJava was Sun Microsystems Inc.'s original stab at a Java hardware architecture but was never much of a market success.
The Java hardware market appears to be shaking off the doldrums, as numerous new hardware players prepare to test the waters. "The infrastructure for Java chips is here, and design engineers are being pushed to think more creatively in terms of designs and applications," said Paul Zorfass, principal embedded analyst with First Data.
Indeed, the impetus for the burgeoning activity is the broadening need for low-power and midlevel-performance devices, at a decent price, that can power Internet appliances such as smart phones and handheld Web browsers.
Vulcan's Goodson sees a ripe market for IP that can translate into quick-turnaround Java silicon."We are seeing the confluence of two trends," he said. "First is the rapid uptake of Java by developers, and then there's the huge growth in embedded apps." The failure of previous industry efforts to catch fire was due less to the chips themselves than to the mindset of the embedded community, Goodson said. "To a certain extent, until now Java processors have been ahead of their time," he contended.
Indeed, as Moon wends its way to market, industry sources while scant on specifics note that other Java chips from other vendors are waiting in the wings. Sources told EE Times that the entries will include Java extensions for the venerable ARM processor, which is a major volume player in the wireless communications marketplace, as well as a new core from Java house Jedi. Also thought to be on tap is an esoteric offering from a Zurich, Switzerland-based company called Esmertec.
Under the hood
As to why Moon has a shot at breaking away from its growing pack of competitors, Goodson claimed, "We've got a unique angle on the design. The beauty of Moon is that it can be used as a standalone processor or as a slave processor for another core."
Vulcan built Moon as a member of Altera's consultants alliance program, implementing first silicon on Altera's Apex 20K technology. Moving forward, Vulcan says it hopes to assist Altera customers who have used low-density devices in the past but are now ready to move to higher-density FPGAs designed using standard HDLs and synthesis.
"The Moon processor is a very different and interesting architecture that I believe is going to provide more optimization for customers looking to deliver Web-enabled, wireless applications," said Luanne Schirrmeister, a program manager at Altera Corp.
That architectural angle is predicated on a design that implements most of the Java byte-code instructions directly in hardware while executing the more complex tasks either in microcode or externally (that is, in a predefined area of ROM). Moon is equipped with a single port with an extensive pre-fetch queue to enable the execution of multiple instructions per cycle.
Moon also has an instruction fetcher that looks ahead along the byte-code stream to determine whether stack operations can be optimized. The core operates at 32 bits internally but allows a user-programmable input/output bus width. Initially implemented in VHDL, Moon has been rewritten in HDL so that it is now retargetable for programmable logic, Goodson noted.
Vulcan has Moon up and running in the lab at 100 MHz in a 0.35-micron processor. First silicon at 0.25 micron should be ready shortly. Goodson would not provide hard performance figures (he claimed the company hasn't finished benchmarks yet) but characterized Moon's performance as "an order of magnitude increase" over that of current Java chips. More specifically, he said he expects that Moon will be 8 to 20 times faster than its competition.
On the applications side, he said, "originally, we thought it was aimed at telematics," the British term for industrial and factory-floor applications. "However, to be honest, mobile communications vendors are becoming interested." He said three such vendors are evaluating the core for use in next-generation handsets, but he declined to name them.
Moon is being marketed as a "clean-room" design, so users would not have to pay royalties to Sun, according to Vulcan.
Despite the free ride on royalties, Moon will play in an increasingly competitive marketplace. "I think you'll wind up seeing more Java implementations in silicon shortly," said Doug Higgins, president of embedded Java software house Newmonics Inc. (Lisle, Ill.). However, it's still not clear which companies will field chips.
The efforts from Jedi, ARM and Esmertic may be among those highest on the radar screen. But there's also healthy interest in Agile Systems, which has just unveiled its JEM2 direct-execution Java processor.
The chip arose from work originally done at Rockwell-Collins several years ago. Though that company declined to take JEM commercial, a dedicated group of engineers within Rockwell spun out Agile and got the job done.
South Korea's LG Semicon has weighed in with a vigorous offering that includes a reference design for a set-top box, although no one knows how many design wins LG has snared, since the company plays it close to the vest. And San Diego-based Patriot Scientific has long sold a Java device.
Java hardware is also available in the form of IP from Japan's Fujitsu and NEC, but those offerings are thought to have languished.
It does appear that piece parts are about to give way to more of an IP approach to Java hardware. "My impression is that several years ago, there was a lot of hype and not a lot of business," said Altera's Schirrmeister. "Now, the relationship of hype to business is far more realistic. I think that's reflective of the entire industry for IP, not just the programmable-logic sector. I've definitely seen a major increase particularly this year in adoption rates from new customers, instead of just the small, experimentation-type acquirers of IP, which was the case several years ago."