NEW YORK – Times are tough for communication chip vendors who need to keep up, as a dizzying array of wireless standards continues to evolve at breathless speed.
Just when you thought you’d finally nailed LTE modem functions in your next generation of mobile SoC chips, here comes what? LTE-Advanced.
Connectivity networks are also growing exponentially. In the WiFi realm alone, handling comfortable old friends like 802.11 n and 802.11a/b/g/p is the fast track to the old folks’ home. As we speak, Broadcom is promoting – heavily – the emergence of 802.11ab.
So, what is to be done?
CEVA, Inc. is announcing Tuesday (Feb. 21st, 2012) a new family of “universal advanced communications engines,” called CEVA-XC4000. It’s designed as an answer to chip suppliers serving the ever-growing cellular, broadcast and connectivity markets, under pressure to roll out new communication chips in a timely manner, while preserving investments in the development of generations of products, if possible.
Eyal Bergman, director of product marketing at CEVA, goes so far as to claim that the CEVA XC4000 family supports “the most complete array of communication standards.”
Let’s break it down.
CEVA’s XC4000 processors, while maintaining backward compatibility with the company’s previous communication processors (i.e. XC321 and XC323), are based on a single, newly designed low-power DSP framework.
The new XC4000 family, which comes in six different processors, can cover a broad range of wireless and wired applications, according to CEVA.
They include everything from cellular (LTE-A, LTE, HSPA+, W-CDMA. TD-SCDMA, GSM/GPRS/EDGDE), connectivity (802.11ac, 802.11n, 802.11a/b/g/p, WiFi Direct, GNSS, Bluetooth, Peer2Peer) to DTV demodulation (DVB-T/2, DVB-S/2, DVB-C/2, ISDB-T, ATSC, DTMB) and others such as White Space, MoCA, DSL, G.hn, PLC and 802.15.4/g, according to CEVA.
Each XC4000 processor, which comes with a varying number of vector units, is designed to be scalable. The variations range from a single vector unit and 16 MACs to 4 vector units and 128 MACs. “Our customers can mix and match these different XC4000 processors to address a wide range of communications markets,” said CEVA’s Bergman.
You might say that this is just the kind of “communication-centric DSP” pitch you’d expect to get from CEVA, a pioneer in software-defined radio (SDR). After all, programmability and flexibility in DSPs are the key to unlocking the conundrum of infinitely growing communication standards.
But this time around, CEVA’s pitch doesn’t stop there. CEVA wants you to know that the company has taken a few roads significantly less-traveled than with the company’s previous communication processors.
First, the XC4000 isn’t a single advanced communication processor like XC321 or XC323 were. The XC4000 family is not just flexible but “it’s also scalable,” Bergman explained, thus making it easier for chip vendors to “scale up or down” their products’ designs.
Second, CEVA’s engineering team took extra steps to make noticeable improvements in power management and die size in designing the new XC4000 architecture.
Bergman said the new XC4000 architecture features better “software and hardware partitioning.” He pointed out that this is “truly optimized for power,” thus making the family of XC4000 processors “highly competitive” with other communication chips on the market.
Will Strauss, president of Forward Concepts, finds XC4000 unique, because of its ability to “provide greater performance at lower power and in smaller silicon.” He noted that XC4000 family, presumably offers “over 50% silicon size reduction for LTE-A PHY, compared with CEVA-XC323 based PHY, both at 28nm. The scalability among XC4000 family of processors is another big improvement over CEVA’s previous products, in Strauss’ opinion. But above all, the strength of XC4000 lies in its “improved power management capability over the [CEVA’s previous communication processor] XC323,” he added.
Scott Gardner, a senior analyst at The Linley Group, agreed on the issue of power management. Gardner singled out “tightly-coupled extensions (TCEs)” included in the new CEVA family of DSPs as XC4000’s big differentiator.
Gardner explained that TCEs “use hardware acceleration of functions as a way to save power and CPU cycles.” In his view, “This design approach recognizes that customers want the best wireless baseband solution, and the DSP doesn’t need to be as flexible for the algorithms” as they move into hardware.
How CEVA is winning thus far
So far, with its previous generation communication processor IPs, CEVA claims that it’s picked up 15 design wins for LTE baseband processing. Among licensees are Intel, Broadcom, Mindspeed, Samsung and NEC, according to Gardner. Forward Concepts’ Strauss noted that Mindspeed last year sampled pico cells based on CEVA’s XC processor at the Mobile World Congress.
Gardner also believes CEVA has references design wins with a tier-1 wireless infrastructure OEM, network processor vendors, and smart-grid chip suppliers, although he declined to speculate on who those companies are, or the production status of the designs.
There’s no question that CEVA is “on a roll,” as Gardner put it. He said, quoting CEVA, its DSPs were in 40% of the handsets shipped worldwide during 2011.
CEVA’s total revenue for 2011 was $60.2 million—up about 34% from the prior year. Royalty revenue for 2011 was a record high $36.4 million, representing an increase of 59% compared to $22.9 million reported for 2010. Licensing revenue for 2011 was $20.2 million, an increase of 10% over that of 2010.
However, there are still enough chip vendors out there, sticking to the hardwired modem blocks they pioneered years ago and milking their lead.
It remains to be seen how many of those hardwired modem houses, and those who compete against them, might eventually convert to CEVA’s XC4000.
Linley Group’s Gardner believes it’s just a matter of time. He said, “High-end standards are still changing too fast to support a hardwired solution. In many cases, a multimode, hardwired design would require multiple blocks of logic with very little reuse between operating modes. These extra hardware blocks add to the cost.” He added, “With CEVA’s approach, many of the low-level algorithms have been baked into hardware TCEs, which gives them the best of both worlds.”
Asked why chip companies should consider licensing XC4000, Forward Concepts’ Strauss said, “First, CEVA has the most experience in licensing DSP cores than anyone else. Second, they have a good reputation for good architectures and good support (including C compilers and development tools). Third, they have developed a good ecosystem of 3rd party suppliers (hardware and software).”
If you are already a CEVA licensee with its previous-generation communication DSP cores, “you can continue to use the compatible programming model and instruction set architecture you are familiar with, while leveraging the same, CEVA-developed tools,” said CEVA’s marketing vice president Eran Briman. “Licensees can scale their products, while preserving their investment.”
The “uncompromising” modem quality XC4000 offers should be another draw for new licensees, according to CEVA. Gardner, in fact, pointed out the significance of higher precision arithmetic and unique floating-point-precision instruction set architecture (ISA) CEVA now offers in its XC4000. Its advantage is that it combines the benefits of floating point precision with fixed point performance and power consumption. “The use of de-normalized numbers for addition/subtraction allows CEVA to speed up processing while retaining precision,” Gardner noted.
Together with its XC4000 architecture announcement, CEVA is also rolling out reference architectures for LTE-A Rel-10 and Wi-Fi 802.11ac (supporting up to 1.7 Gbps).