Integration challenges for Connectivity IP in the IoT space – Sunrise Micro Devices is addressing each one of them
I am going to broadly divide IP into RF/Analog IP and Digital IP. Both have unique integration and delivery challenges. Increasingly though, more of the IP is mixed signal. Take us, Sunrise Micro Devices (SMD), for instance. SMD is in the Internet of Things (IoT) market where we expect billions of devices to be connected to the internet in the next few years. Every semiconductor IC device, in addition to having a microprocessor and sensor solution, will need a connectivity solution. IPs in this space are necessarily mixed signal; consequently, they inherit the complexities and issues of both digital and RF IPs.
At a very high level, the main issue with IP is that the simulated environment is different from the final design environment. Analog and RF IP is dependent on process/node, foundry, layout, extraction, model fidelity, and placement. So you are either tied to just dropping it in ‘as is’ and treating it like a black box (nobody knows how it works and whether it meets the required specifications) or completely changing it (with the caveat that you can no longer expect the same results). Digital IP needs to be resynthesized followed by placement and routing, and it takes several iterations to make the IP you got work the way you want it to work. In addition, this process is extremely tool-dependent.
Finally, there are system level issues like interoperability, interface and controls (how does the IP talk to the rest of the SoC). A very important, often overlooked factor is the communication between the IP providers and the SoC implementation houses – there are documents outlining integration guidelines, but without an automated process that takes in all that information, a lot could be lost in translation.
IP is no longer just IP blocks, we now have IP sub-systems. This is very true in our space (IoT market), where a radio solution needs a transceiver, a baseband and a link layer controller – including blocks in RF, Analog, purely digital and mixed signal domains. The only way to address this effectively is to do so at the architectural level. We are seeing fragmented solutions from IP providers, some providing just the transceiver, and some baseband/controller solutions and making integration very difficult.
Very few companies have expertise in both the RF/Analog and digital domains; SMD is an expert in low-power radio design and our Technologist-in-Residence, dflynn is an ARM Fellow who has extensive experience in the low power digital domain. Together, we have architected a solution to address the problem we see in this IP market. The resulting solution is a Hard Macro (pre-qualified) that has integrated transceiver, baseband and the Link Layer controller. Our radio IP has a peripheral interconnect which is a standard AHB interface that is compatible with most microprocessor architectures, greatly simplifying SoC integration.
Another aspect of system integration is SW availability – We provide firmware required for the radio in the ROM and also provide provision for updates through patch RAM. This along with the timing-independent interface to the host controller in all our IP offerings enables easy implementation of the stack and application layers. We have also paid special attention to system level reset, timing and control
Besides addressing the ‘Ease of integration’ issue at a system and architectural level, we support it via integration and implementation manuals, reference schematics, data sheets and applications notes on antenna selection, PCB layout, Bluetooth qualification, regulatory certifications and production test guidance which enables silicon partners with little or no prior RF experience to bring to market BLE enabled SOCs in a timely, risk-free, and cost effective manner.
Companies/engineers can only can keep up with the explosive growth in computing needs in the market by efficient IP re-use, so I actually see this as a huge potential for third-party IP vendors. There are known issues and IP companies recognize them. Every IP vendor, can address the specific IP integration issues in their domain, differentiate their offerings and offer better solutions. The cream will rise to the top. The vendors that offer effective solutions and ease integration pain points are the ones that will thrive.