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Is changing analogue market on the rise?

Posted: 17 Jul 2007     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:mixed-signal SoC  analogue market  IP companies 

There are probably two good reasons why you haven't heard about Chipidea Microelectronica. First, it's an IC company based in Portugal, where no large semiconductor manufacturer exists and the local IC market is virtually nil. Second, anyone who understands the complexity of analogue technologies and the intellectual property business wisely regards "analogue IP" as a risky proposition.

So when Chipidea claims it's actually generating real revenue—more than Rs.102.03 crore ($25 million) in 2006, with an annual compound growth rate of 50 per cent—the experts are even more sceptical. They ask, with good reason, "How do you know the analogue IP will actually work? How can it be assured that it integrates properly? How do you 'test' analogue IP anyway?"

Despite such well-reasoned doubts, market statistics show an analogue IP market on the rise. The analogue and mixed-signal IP market grew 34 per cent in 2006, accounting for 16 per cent of the overall design IP market, according to Christian Heidarson, senior research analyst at Gartner. Chipidea, Gartner's figure shows, ranked ninth among all IP vendors in 2006.

Chipidea has earned a reputation as a rare success in merchant analogue/ mixed-signal IP. The company supplies single-function analogue IP and sub-system cores including RF, wireless, power management, wireline, audio, video and connectivity interfaces. While Chipidea doesn't disclose its customer list, leading fabless mobile-TV chip suppliers such as DiBcom and Siano, which do not have in-house analogue capabilities, reportedly got Chipidea's help in bringing their DVB-H tuner/demodulators to market in record time.

Chipidea's emergence poses questions about the changing nature of the analogue business. As more SoC integrate analogue content, will discrete analogue IC vendors, with no virtual components to sell, be forced to fight for survival? Will IDMs that design their own analogue IPs need to shift focus elsewhere?

Battle looms?
Enter Jose Franca, founder and CEO of Chipidea. The executive occupies a sort of non-office office—no walls, no door—at Chipidea's headquarters near Lisbon. His desk is tucked away in a corner of the same airy floor where the company's engineers have workbenches. Here, Franca patiently outlined a relatively nascent analogue IP market. He talked of an inevitable future where all technology components will be brought into the SoC fold.

Franca has never said, however, that analogue IP companies like Chipidea might one day replace discrete analogue chip companies. "Analogue is an extremely diverse business. It needs to cover a vast space of technology," he said. Nor has he suggested that Chipidea could go head-to-head against IDMs.

But he does predict that IDMs with internal analogue-engineering resources will start divesting some of their standard analogue IP.

"Look back on the history," Franca said. Semiconductor companies that once developed their own design tools internally no longer do so, thanks to the rise of the EDA industry. Wafer manufacturers are yielding to the foundry business. Those who once designed proprietary processors now embrace cores from ARM or MIPS. Next to go, Franca posits, will be some of the analogue/mixed-signal IP that IDMs now develop for SoCs.

Chipidea already works with "eight of the top 10 IDMs in the world," developing IP that the IDMs can integrate into their chips, said Franca. The "disintegration" of IDMs' internal analogue IP business may not yet be obvious to the industry, he said, but it's a "relentless process."

In style again
Analogue expertise has always been regarded as a crown jewel at IDMs, differentiating them from digital-only chip companies and start-ups. And analogue, is in vogue again; even DSP vendor Texas Instruments today calls itself an analogue company. So why would an IDM with significant analogue expertise use someone else's analogue IP?

Franca offers an answer. Today, even large IDMs such as Freescale, TI and NXP are embracing the "fab-lite" model. The pressure to turn around SoCs quickly makes such companies more receptive to using external analogue IP to meet deadlines. But they also continue to pursue their own pure analogue plays, with their solutions highly optimised for their own process technologies, Franca said.

Franca may be correct that a trend is under way, but it's not a revolution. Pieter Hooijmans, technology competence manager for analogue and RF IP at NXP Semiconductors, said the IP used in the company's SoCs "is developed in-house, by dedicated IP design teams or by development teams inside the business lines. Purchased IP is still rare. We consider analogue IPs critical for SoC performance, primarily because they are the SoC's interface to the physical world."

But Hooijmans acknowledged that "external sourcing of IP is indeed an option" under certain circumstances. Declining to comment specifically on Chipidea's business, he laid out a few industry trends that may accelerate the analogue IP market.

First, he said, "the number of IP blocks that needs to be supported is continuously increasing, especially in the serial-interfaces domain." Second, the process technology spread between component and SoC products is increasing, he said, "in the sense that a function needs to be supported in quite a number of CMOS nodes." Today, it ranges from 0.25 to 0.13µm for components and from 90 to 45nm for SoCs. "This makes it increasingly difficult to have the IP supported internally for every node."

Under such circumstances, "external players may have [more] interesting or timely solutions," said Hooijmans.

Back at Chipidea, Franca views the company's mission as "making captive technology available to the world. We foster competition and accelerate the trend for SoCs with analogue content."

The challenge
Analogue IP content in SoCs is a growing concern even for digital IP companies. Oliver Gunasekara, VP of corporate business development at ARM, predicted that, "In time, the discrete analogue IC business will decline and be replaced with single SoC and SiP [system-in-package] devices that contain analogue IP."

The question is how to get there. ARM, for one, has dabbled in analogue IP; it provides PCI Express PHYs.

Compared with the digital IP business, Gunasekara noted, the challenge in the analogue IP market is the business model itself. "

"Analogue IP is delivered as a GDSII hard macro, which means that it needs to be ported to each specific foundry and process," he said. "The majority of this work is done by hand, as there are few tools to automate it, and as a result it is very labour-intensive."

Moreover, "as new processes are updated, the IP needs to be retested and validated," he said. "It is much more expensive in comparison with digital IP, which is mainly delivered in RTL."

The key to success in the analogue IP business, in Franca's mind, is to offer multi-function IPs supporting multiple process nodes across multiple foundries. Today, Chipidea supports more than 40 merchant and captive processes from more than 15 different wafer manufacturers, with process generations ranging from 0.18µm to 65nm.

In contrast, most analogue semiconductors work with very few fabs, offering SoC vendors few options when their analogue content needs to be integrated. Chipidea is also focused only on CMOS—no SiGe or BiCMOS.

"CMOS is our strategy because it's the cheapest process technology available," said Franca.

But there are other challenges. As ARM's Gunasekara said, "The interface to the analogue IP is proprietary, and as a result the IP vendor needs to do the customisation." For digital IP, by contrast, "you have the Amba bus, which is a standard, thereby reducing the need for custom interfaces."

Franca readily acknowledged that no single piece of analogue IP will fit well in every customer's product without adjustments. "We have a lot of silicon-proven analogue IP that gives confidence to our customers. But there are no guarantees that it will work correctly in every application," he said.

The quality of analogue IP is affected by the accuracy of a transistor model. Further, elements of technologies in analogue are "parasitic," requiring proper extractions, Franca said.

In the end, he said, analogue IP quality "is a shared responsibility among foundries, IP vendors and SoC developers."

Franca's great source of pride is that 70-75 per cent of his business is based on repeat customers. But that raises another question: Isn't the analogue IP business a design service, after all?

No, Franca replied adamantly. "We wouldn't do design for hire."

Chipidea's quest to become an integral part of "a virtual system semiconductor company" has only begun. "Diversity of technologies and functions is a huge challenge in scaling our business," commented Franca.

Earlier this year, Chipidea acquired Nordic Semiconductor's data converter IP business unit, a move Franca characterised as "strategic for building human capital." It has also acquired TransDimension, Oxford Semiconductor's subsidiary, for high-speed USB IP controllers. "That's to complete our USB global solution," he said.

-Junko Yoshida
EE Times

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