Core values in licensing
By Jeff Bier, EE Times
July 23, 2001 (3:17 p.m. EST)
Typical CPUs used to be built with hundreds of chips, each containing a few simple logic gates. Nobody uses those logic gate chips anymore; as IC manufacturing technology improved (and as Moore's Law predicted), processors shrank to the point that today they occupy only a small portion of a chip.
Thus it is now possible to integrate a multitude of other elements-memories, coprocessors, algorithm accelerators and specialized peripherals-on a single chip with a DSP or MCU core. With the key role that digital signal processing now plays in many high-volume products, the benefits of system-on-chip integration-reduced cost, size and energy consumption-are making such designs a compelling option for many DSP applications.
Given that trend, might today's packaged DSP processors be displaced by licensable cores and ultimately go the way of the simple 7400-series logic gate chips of decades past? For some applications, at least, that seems likely.
Ten years ago, only a few licensable DSP cores were available. Today there are many, and the options are expanding. A range of vendors has begun to offer licensable DSP cores-from upstarts like 3DSP Corp. to giants like Philips that seek to build momentum behind their architectures.
Reaping the benefits of DSP cores, however, comes at a premium. Designing a highly integrated system-on-chip requires a huge investment, which puts cores beyond the reach of many system manufacturers.
Thus, for now at least, licensable DSP cores will mainly be used in very high-volume applications, such as cell phones. Indeed, a recent market study by Forward Concepts found that cores licensed from DSP Group made up a 20 percent share of the cell-phone DSP chip market last year.
Even chip vendors that traditionally relied on their own, proprietary DSP architectures are considering licensab le cores. Conexant, for example, recently followed IBM and Broadcom in licensing LSI Logic's ZSP400 superscalar DSP core. Given the industry slowdown, it's easy to see why Conexant decided to license a DSP core: The cost of developing an in-house core and the infrastructure required for its use is huge-typically tens of millions.
Packaged DSPs aren't on the verge of extinction; for many applications, they will be the solution of choice. But for the highest-volume applications, licensable cores will play an increasingly key role.
Jeff Bier is General Manager of Berkeley Design Technology Inc. (www.bdti.com), a dsp technology analysis and software development company. jonah holmes of bdti contributed to this column.