A look inside the Cortex-A5 CPU, available through DesignStart

For the past 10 years, Arm DesignStart has helped silicon start-ups and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) create custom silicon/ASICs built on proven Arm IP and with the benefits of the industry's leading technology ecosystem in the fastest time and for the lowest cost possible.

Can you guess how many businesses have benefited? Over 4,000 companies in the past 18 months alone have evaluated Arm IP for free through DesignStart and an additional 300 have licensed Cortex-M CPUs for no upfront fee, just success-based royalties. We've even seen one company called EigenCOMM in China take an NB-IoT chip from concept to silicon in 6 months! They took advantage of much more than the CPU, but the system IP, physical IP and more, to ensure a successful tape-out. 

To date, Arm IP available on DesignStart has been limited to Cortex-M processors, designed for the most constrained, low-power embedded applications. Recently we even added the Arm Cortex-M1 and Cortex-M3 CPU soft IP - free to use on Xilinx FPGA for commercial deployments. Continuing the momentum, Arm expanded its fast-access IP program to include the Linux-capable Arm Cortex-A5 processor.

The Cortex-A5 is a high-performance, fully featured, ultra-efficient, Linux-capable CPU. It can be configured as a quad-core fully coherent SoC and is the ideal CPU for a whole range of embedded applications. It has the same feature set as Cortex-A9 in half the area and half the power. It is 1.7x more efficient, and yet offers 70% of the performance. It includes NEON, an advanced SIMD for high Digital Signal Processing (DSP) and supported by a broad set of open-source and proprietary software. And with Arm NN, it can even be used in ML applications!

This blog highlights four big aspects that make Cortex-A5 DesignStart stand out and what you get:

  1. Processor features for advanced applications
  2. Comprehensive system design
  3. Faster and more flexible software development
  4. Professional support for right-first-time silicon

[Skip to the bottom for the high-level summary if you're pressed for time!]

1. Processor features for advanced applications

Cortex-A5 is a proven and widely deployed CPU that has been shipped in over 2 billion devices. It has been used in applications across a diverse set of markets such as medical, smart home and industrial. It has been manufactured across all major foundries and process nodes, from 180nm to 7nm. The experience foundries have of Arm CPUs, including Cortex-A5, means that it is much simpler for an ASIC designer to successfully tape out their project, saving many months of time and effort.

Here are the key features of the Cortex-A5 CPU that make it so versatile and popular:

High performance, small footprint: Cortex-A5 is a highly capable CPU that is capable of GHz frequency range and ideal for innovation in advanced applications. The CPU offers high performance for embedded markets, yet it has a very small footprint of 0.28mmon 40nm and a low silicon fabrication cost.

Ultra-high power efficiency: The processor is almost twice as efficient as the Cortex-A9 yet it has the same feature set and 70% of the performance. It is also very efficient at 10mW/100MHz on the established 40nm process node!

Highly configurable: When it comes to additional features, the Cortex-A5 offers many options, including:

  • From a single-core design to a fully coherent quad-core design.
  • Floating Point Unit (FPU) for high-performance and high-efficiency hardware support for floating point operations in single, and double-precision arithmetic, with half-precision conversion.
  • Security with TrustZone technology including hardware-enforced isolation for the most robust software security, extending across the entire system, currently deployed in billions of Cortex-A based devices.
  • A high-performance accelerator (ACP) port for fast connection to machine learning or other custom processors.

Cortex-A5 configurability

Enhanced DSP and multimedia processing with Arm NEON: The Cortex-A5 processor is capable of advanced SIMD data processing with NEON, for enhanced signal and multimedia processing. The SIMD engine makes it possible to significantly boost performance. In fact, a YUV colour conversion has a 50% performance increase using Cortex-A5 with NEON, compared to a standard integer processor.

NEON is used widely across the industry from image processing to voice control. And, it is easy to use too - there are hundreds of open source and proprietary libraries and middleware built for or optimized for NEON. One of the most popular signal processing development tools, Matlab, outputs NEON code. This code has been optimized to use directly on Cortex-A processors.

DSP and Arm NEON

2. Comprehensive system design

We don't just provide the CPU: The Cortex-A5 DesignStart package also includes a comprehensive set of system IP that makes it much simpler to create Cortex-A5 systems. The proven system-on-chip (SoC) foundation includes a set of flexible system IP for area and power-optimized SoC development. Here's what's included:

  • Arm CoreLink NIC-400 is an on-chip network interconnect for configurable and low-power connectivity with design flexibility. We provide the Socrates tool to assist with the design of NIC-400.
  • The industry-standard CoreSight debug and trace solution for seamless debugging.
  • TrustZone is the system-wide security solution mentioned above. TrustZone technology provides hardware-enforced isolation to establish a secure root of trust.

System IP Cortex-A5

3. Save costs and time with flexible software development

Reducing software development costs with Linux: Linux is extremely important for rich embedded applications and a 2017 EE Times Embedded Markets Study reported that 82% of developers are considering Linux for their next embedded development. The Cortex-A5 unlocks the world of Linux software for developers with its comprehensive set of software stacks and the breadth of ready-to-run middleware and applications that are needed for rich embedded designs.

Arm Cortex-A5 Linux

Arm and Linaro combined are in the top three contributors to the Linux kernel, and by choosing Arm, developers will save money and man-years of time on software development alone.

The below image shows an IoT stack and some of the middleware and applications needed, that run on Arm. Whether it is firmware for trusted boot and execution, radio and networking stacks, codecs, IoT protocols or applications – they all run on Arm.

Linux IoT Stack

Make machine learning at the edge easier: Cortex-A5 can also be used for machine learning (ML) applications. Arm provides a vast range of software to make ML on Arm easy and efficient. As part of Project Trillium, we have open-sourced Arm NN, an inference engine which allows developers to create their ML application using their favorite framework and then map this to any Arm IP or CPU, or indeed any third-party IP. We then have the Arm Compute Library providing deeply optimized functions that get the very best out of the Arm hardware.

Cortex-A5 and Machine Learning at the edge

Choice and flexibility by using the Arm ecosystem: Developers can design confidently on Arm with access to the largest technology ecosystem, offering a wealth of resources and a strong foundation on which to scale their products. The Cortex-A5 ecosystem contains hundreds of tools, RTOS and open-source, and propriety rich operating systems that run on Arm.

Arm partner ecosystem

4. Professional support for right-first-time silicon

Access to the program includes one-year design support from Arm experts, or the option of three years of support to help achieve right-first-time silicon. Our global team will provide professional support to assist you with solving technical problems and inquiries on the Arm IP. For your convenience, you can raise cases via email or online here. With 96% customer satisfaction, you can be confident that the support you receive will be of considerable value, but don't just take our word for it, here is what our customers have told us:

"The turnaround time for the problem resolution was excellent. You guys root-caused the problem and got to the solution very quickly. It beat my expectations considering the weekend and the time zone differences."

"The feedback was very helpful because it contained enough documents and explanations, where we could derive answers for our queries. Thank you for the detailed information and kind support."

"You saved me a working day on a time critical period and for that I am grateful. Thank you very much."

To help you get started, we will first arrange an onboarding call with you, to take you through the basics of working with Arm. We would also encourage you to join the DesignStart forum on Arm Community. This gives you free access to information and support from Arm experts, ecosystem partners and other DesignStart designers. Share your successes, ideas and challenges, and get the latest news about custom SoC design.

There is also various self-service documents, how-to videos and training opportunities available that include:

For more information, please visit the DesignStart Pro page. For more information about the support available, please feel free to get in touch.

Quick summary - so what do you get with Arm Cortex-A5 DesignStart?

1. Processor features for advanced applications

  • High performance, small footprint (low silicon fabrication cost!)
  • Ultra-high power efficiency (almost twice as efficient as the Cortex-A9 – yet it has the same feature set and 70% of the performance)
  • Highly configurable (quad-core design, FPU, TrustZone and high-performance accelerator port)
  • Enhanced DSP and multimedia processing for boosted performance with Arm NEON - hundreds of open-source and proprietary libraries and middleware built for, or optimized for NEON (even Matlab outputs NEON code for use directly on Cortex-A processors)

2. Comprehensive system design

  • A set of flexible system IP for area and power-optimized SoC development
  • Arm CoreLink NIC-400 for configurable and low-power connectivity with design flexibility
  • The industry-standard CoreSight debug and trace solution for seamless debugging
  • TrustZone - a system-wide security solution that's built in from the ground-up and proven in billions of devices to-date

3. Faster and more flexible software development

  • Reducing software development costs with Linux - save money and man-years of time on software development alone
  • Develop machine learning at the edge easier with a vast range of software to make ML on Arm easy and efficient
  • Choice and flexibility by using the Arm ecosystem with hundreds of tools, RTOS and open-source, and propriety rich operating systems that run on Arm

4. Enhanced support for first-time-right silicon

  • One-year design support from Arm experts, or the option of three years' of support to help achieve right-first-time silicon
  • Professional support to assist you with solving technical problems and inquiries on the Arm IP
  • Useful documentation, how-to videos and training materials, all accessible from Arm Developer website

Also, when you are ready to tape out a custom chip, your time to market can be accelerated with Arm's vast range of Artisan physical IP. Developers can benefit from design enablement platforms being supported by 18 foundry partners with process technology ranging from 250nm to 5nm. Access our optimized Arm Artisan physical IP portfolio through DesignStart Physical IP here.

Why wait? Get started today with fast access to the world's leading IP

Accessing the Cortex-A5 through DesignStart is straightforward:

  1. First, you need to create an Arm account by registering for access.
  2. Following your registration, a member of the DesignStart team will be in touch. We've significantly reduced the Cortex-A5 license fee to a small $75k access fee to the IP, which includes a year of global support from Arm engineers. For longer projects we offer an alternative $150k access fee that includes three years of support.
  3. Following approval of your application, you can get started on your Cortex-A5 based design. Our team of highly-experienced engineers are available globally, so wherever you are in the world, we are here to help with your SoC development.

Once you are at the tape-out and manufacturing stage, there is a $50k tape out fee and a small royalty above 1,000 units. This cost is to help you defer some of the license fee in line with project milestones.

Cortex-A5 DesignStart costs

Why wait? Get the Cortex-A5 processor

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