SAN JOSE -- Digital signal processors are a hot property for a growing number of startups and veteran suppliers, and if the sheer volume of partnerships, licensing programs, and new software and hardware designs unleashed at this week's DSP World Spring Design Conference in San Jose is any indication, the momentumshows no sign of slowing.
"In the last year, more than a dozen new DSP cores were introduced to the market," said Will Strauss, an analyst at Forward Concepts Co., Tempe, Ariz. "In that period, 80% to 90% of all IP start-ups have been [involved in] either network processors or DSPs."
Among the show's highlights were licensing agreements announced by LSI Logic Corp. and Improv Systems Inc., a second RISC/DSP hybrid-development deal for Massana Inc., a specialized fast Fourier transform (FFT)-intensive device from DSP Architectures, and a new FPGA-style architecture from Systolix Ltd.
"We're finding a lot companies ready and willing to try something new and different, particularly in telecom, because of the incredible volatility of the market," said Diane Flynn, vice president of business development and marketing at Improv in Beverly, Mass.
Improv on Monday will name STMicroelectronics Inc. as the second major licensee of its Jazz Programmable System Architecture, a configurable DSP core based on a very long instruction word architecture. Philips Semiconductors already has licensed the Jazz PSA, and Flynn said the company is negotiating with several Japanese semiconductor companies.
Improv is one of a growing list of fabless and often chipless DSP houses seeking licensees-in addition to an expanding roster of more mature suppliers like Infineon, LSI Logic, Motorola SPS, and Zilog that offer both stand-alone chips and licenses.
LSI Logic Corp., of Milpitas, Calif., this week licensed its ZSP400 architecture, which it acquired last year with the purchase of ZSP Inc., to Brecis Communications, a San Jose-based fabless semi conductor company.
Motorola's Semiconductor Products Sector has yet to license either its traditional 56xxx family of DSPs or the StarCore architecture, but part of a reorganization of its embedded-processor-products group earlier this year included the creation of a unit to explore licensing opportunities.
Paul Marino, director of the DSP-core technology center at SPS in Austin, Tex., said the licensing of DSP technology is in its formative stages and will evolve.
"DSP's obviously a very exciting field to be in today," Marino said. "It's possible today for 5 or 10 bright guys to get together and make a design they can take to the market. But the reality is that while the licensed model has proved very successful in the MPU arena, in DSP, it still represents less than 5% of the market today."
Another arena for improving competitive balance in the DSP market is joint development. When traditional market players like Analog Devices Inc., Lucent Microelectronics Group, and Motorola's SPS fou nd themselves needing to quickly regain high-end opportunities following the introduction of market-leader Texas Instruments Inc.'s TMS320C6x family, the companies went seeking partners.
Motorola SPS and Lucent formed StarCore, which is now providing the first silicon of its initial core offering, and Analog joined forces with Intel Corp. The Analog-Intel alliance is expected to reveal the first details of its development effort in June, according to sources.
Massana, a Campbell, Calif., fabless DSP company, has announced two joint-development agreements that appear to address the need to maximize investment through collaboration, as well as provide solutions for the growing hybrid RISC/DSP market.
Massana this week signed a deal with Lexra Inc., Waltham, Mass., in which the companies will offer a device that combines Massana's 200-mips FILU-200 DSP with Lexra's 32-bit RISC microprocessor core. The companies plan to target the hybrid device at high-performance communications markets, and also to spin application-specific devices for the emerging voice-over-IP arena.
A week prior to the Lexra agreement, Massana signed a similar deal with Xemics, of Neuchatel, Switzerland, to produce a hybrid that combines Massana's 50-mips FILU-50 with Xemic's 8-bit CoolRISC to produce low-power solutions for the portable-equipment market.
FPGA implementations to deliver DSP solutions has been a successful market for established companies such as Altera Corp. and Xilinx Inc., and last week Systolix Ltd., of Liverpool, England, entered the fray with the introduction of its PulseDSP architecture.
The technology uses an array of bit-serial-multiply and serial-adder cells that can be configured from an EPROM or external microprocessor to operate in parallel configurations.
The design is said to outperform conventional DSPs or FPGAs in applications requiring high multiply-accumulate rates, according to Gordon Work, managing director at Systolix.
Justin Cowling, senior intellectual-property mark eting manager at San Jose-based Altera disputed Systolix's performance claims, however, and questioned the ability of a newcomer to the FPGA market to have a significant impact.
"We've sold 130 [DSP-intensive] Reed-Solomon [development platforms] over the last two years," Cowling said. "That's a large installed base of customers."
Also last week, a reborn DSP specialist, DSP Architectures Inc., in Vancouver, Wash., introduced its DSP-24, a device aimed at military and space applications requiring extremely high and reliable FFT performance.
The DSP-24 is the company's first product since it was reformed following the dissolution of the former Butterfly DSP business unit of Sharp Microelectronics.
The new architecture has already been licensed to NASA, and the company is seeking additional licensees, while offering ICs produced at foundries American Microelectronics Inc. and Honeywell Corp., said DSP Architectures' president Michael Fleming.