Intel's silicon library: no Alexandria
Intel says it has "dozens of IP blocks ready or in development for [it's undisclosed] SoC fabric." The company has used a relatively small number of generally PC-centric blocks so far.
Intel's Tolapai SoCs released in July 2008 for communications systems mainly consisted of Pentium M cores and their associated memory and I/O controllers—essentially a PC on a chip. The Canmore SoC for digital TVs that debuted in August 2008 included a number of blocks from Intel's PC chip set group such as cores for 2.5 GHz PCI Express, serial ATA 2.0, USB 2.0 and Gigabit Ethernet.
Intel designed three other blocks for Canmore. They included an MPEG2/H.264 decode block based on technology acquired from Israeli startup O-Plus, a display processor for scaling and interlacing and a security processor. Canmore also sported a graphics block from Imagination Technologies, a company Intel and Apple have both used and invested in.
Intel lacks the wealth of consumer or communications blocks available in the ASIC processes of companies such as Panasonic or LSI Corp. To cover more bases, especially in comms, Intel has developed a generic accelerator it calls Quick Assist and published an applications programming interface for it so customers can create their own blocks for comms functions not in Intel's IP library.
"Our strategy is If we can run a function on a multicore x86, we will do that first," said Rose Schooler, general manager for SoCs in Intel's embedded group. "In some cases we offer the accelerator, and that's why an open API is so critical for us," she said.
To help fill the gaps in mobile, Intel struck a partnership with Nokia in late June, licensing its 3G silicon blocks. Such baseband capabilities are increasingly used in handset application processors from competitors such as Qualcomm, said Gwennap of The Linley Group.
"If Intel doesn't have that capability, they won't get anywhere," said Gwennap. "It's definitely something they need to be serious about smart phones," he said.
But Intel is playing catch up. ST Ericsson is already sampling its U8500 cellphone processor. It combines two ARM Cortex A9 cores with a Nokia baseband block.
Nokia has announced it will buy handset SoCs from ST Ericsson, Broadcom and Qualcomm for future smart phones. Thus Intel needs Nokia more than Nokia needs Intel.
Meanwhile other companies are working on single-and dual-core ARM chips that hit data rates of a GHz or more. They will attack Intel's premise of having a more powerful mobile processor than its competitors.