Trends for Embedded Cores

By John Blyler, Editor-in-Chief

Despite the preponderance of news on low power, especially at the recent Consumer Electronic Show, automated design tools have not been well received by lowpower chip designers, according to a recent Chip Design Trends (CDT) “EDA Tools and Technology” survey.

These same respondents listed their primary design areas as digital logic, mixed signal and embedded processors, all areas where architectural power decisions lock-in the power usage of the end-product. But while power tools may come up short among chip designers, the processor IP manufacturers and OEMs have been steadily decreasing the energy consumption of their cores.

For example, Intel just announced its 2010 core lineup of processor platforms. Among them were several embedded processors with core power consumption far below the previous standard levels. In addition to lower power, Intel is pushing the software side of power design – at the chip and board levels. (see “New Intel® Processors Benefit Embedded and Challenge Software.”)

On the mobile handset side of the market, ARM continues to makes strides in reducing its core power consumption. As James Bruce, Mobile Segment Manager for ARM puts it: “OEMs typically specify the maximum power of the processor at 300mWatts for handsets. This power limit is constrained by battery technology and the size of the consumer’s pocket.”

With battery technology advancing slowly, power tools and IP will have to take up the slack. Moreover, as lowpower becomes an important consideration in all designs, this picture is likely to change significantly.

SoC’s Move beyond Digital and Memory Blocks

What is the functional make-up of today’s Systemon- Chip (SoC) designs? Unlike the past, when SoC were dominated by digital logic and memory cores, today’s devices contain a more balanced set of functional blocks. This viewpoint is supported by the findings from a recent survey of the Chip Design magazine readership (see Figure). The response was surprising in that Digital Logic design edged out Analog and Mixed Signal (AMS) by a slight margin–6 percent. Further, embedded processor cores edged out memory in terms of the type of functional blocks utilized in SoC.

The shrinking cost, improved performance and lower power of embedded processor, married with the strong growth in consumer and mobile devices, is one reason for the increased presence of embedded cores. A separate survey question concerning the type of processor IP used in SoC designs revealed ARC as the leader, followed by ARM, MIPS, Intel and others.

Interestingly, when survey respondents were asked about third-party IP usage for their SoC designs, they selected AMS blocks as being dominate, followed in a distant second by embedded processor, memory and digital logic IP.

These trends complement the move toward more embedded processor designs and the increasing need for connectivity and sensors in the growing market for consumer and mobile devices.

John Blyler can be reached at: jblyler@extensionmedia.com