Pleasanton, Calif. - Scores of system-on-chip companies have been scrambling in recent years to deliver the value of integration to OEMs in the consumer and communications sectors. But it's been a struggle as the often-expensive solutions, which need high volumes to succeed, fall short of expectations.
Not so apparently with CPU Tech Inc., a nearly stealth outfit nestled amid the sprawling corporate campuses here, east of Silicon Valley.
"SoC is the next major revolution in the industry," said chief executive officer Ed King, who founded CPU Tech two decades ago. "It simply hasn't been practical until now." The cost-effective SoC, King predicted, will "have as big an impact on the world as microprocessors."
The trick? Target military and avionics applications and leverage proprietary design software.
"We have changed the economics of what it takes to create an SoC," said Shanker Munshani, a former Intel Corp. engineer who serves as CPU Tech's vice president of engineering.
Some OEMs buy standard products and glue them together with field-programmable gate arrays. ASIC vendors offer a high-performance solution with high nonrecurring-engineering costs.
But at CPU Tech, "We allow them to do a custom SoC," Munshani said.
If the industry standard is $100 million for a 10 million-gate design, King said CPU Tech can deliver that for about $5 million. "It begins to snowball," King said of the cost savings. "Instead of a $100,000 high-end system, you can sell it for $10,000 at a profit."
The company's most ambitious project was a 1.4 billion-transistor design for an F-16 radar system that took 55 cards and 10,000 parts. CPU Tech shrunk that down to five cards and fewer than 100 parts, reducing power consumption from 500 amps to less than 5 A.
Before the shrink, the radar subsystem cost $16 million a year in maintenance, Munshani said. Component obsolescence is an irritating mainstay of military/avionics systems that contributes to steep maintenance. CPU Tech has identified 50,000 high-end systems, including 7,000 types of avionics systems, as potential targets. But the goal is not just a replacement business.
The company has invested in tools and languages "every step of the way," and now its methodology has users compile proprietary code down to VHDL and Verilog, themselves high-level languages. "It's got to be high-level because it's all about time. We use our own language and our own synthesis to bring it down to that level," King said.
Tools break down the commands in each module and automatically set up a test pattern-one that avoids built-in self-test, which would add real estate to dice. "We started not from a semiconductor mind-set but from a system design mind-set," King said. "Intel can marshal armies of people to verify their designs, but no one else can. So we took the road of teaching machines how to verify."
King acknowledged that the military/aerospace market has been infatuated with the cost and accessibility of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) strategies over the past decade. But one little-noticed problem has come back to bite customers where it hurts: obsolescence.
"The spirit of COTS is you don't have to buy a $10,000 toilet seat," Munshani said. "But they went to COTS and jeopardized all the software built up."
The Boeing 777 airplane, for example, uses the venerable but obsoleted AMD29000 in its flight control system. "You don't take and requalify that aircraft from scratch," Munshani said. "Every major systems company faces this problem: By the time they field their system, their components are discontinued."
King's end game, even in the current recessionary climate, is to take his company public.
The military-market-minded Carlyle Group, with former IBM CEO Louis Gerstner as chairman, is a big investor. "We're the perfect company in his portfolio," Munshani said.