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ARM pulls back curtain on 32nm physical IP initiative

Posted: 12 Nov 2007     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:32nm initiative  physical IP  processor cores 

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ARM CEO Warren East hints at bold initiative.

Looking to get a jump on rivals like Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd and Virage Logic Corp., ARM Holdings plc. pulled back the curtain on its 32nm initiative for physical intellectual property (IP).

At the same time, ARM warned that the dreaded shift to 32nm will be an expensive and risky proposition, estimating that R&D costs will edge toward Rs.296.62 crore ($75 million) for a 32nm design, compared with Rs.79.10 crore ($20 million) to Rs.197.75 crore ($50 million) at 45nm.

ARM is best known for its processor cores, but physical IP—memory cores, PLLs, standard cells and other IC building blocks for SoC design—is critical to the company's growth. During a keynote address at last October's ARM Developers' Conference, ARM CEO Warren East dropped hints about the company's bold 32nm initiative for leading-edge physical IP.

ARM entered the physical-IP space in 2004 by acquiring U.S.-based Artisan Components Inc. for Rs.3,610.90 crore ($913 million). Artisan had focused largely on trailing-edge technology that could be downloaded free. "You can say we invested a little late in new technology when we were Artisan," said Mike Muller, chief technology officer for ARM.

Going for leading edge

Though ARM continues to offer a free physical-IP program for customers, "In our new business model, we want to be on the leading edge," said Muller. In 2006, ARM acquired Soisic, a developer of physical-IP based on silicon-on-insulator (SOI) technology. And ARM and Taiwan foundry provider United Microelectronics Corp. have jointly developed an SOI-based processor core at the 65nm node.

ARM has delivered 45nm physical IP to customers that are said to include UMC, TSMC and IBM's "fab club," including technology alliance partners Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing and Samsung.

Given current market dynamics, ARM may have little choice but to focus on the leading edge. The big customers for the U.K. company's physical IP are the silicon foundries. But one account—foundry giant TSMC—has developed its own physical IP.

Unlike third-party offerings, TSMC's IP is tailored exclusively for its own fabs. The foundry offers both its own and third-party IP to its customers. It has called its internal development program a hedge against the possibility that a third-party provider might fail to deliver a solution on time. But the proprietary IP could also help TSMC lock customers into working with its fabs. That has riled some third-party IP houses, which find themselves dealing with TSMC variously as a customer, development partner and competitor.

Risky move

An even bigger challenge for ARM—and the industry at large—is the costly, risky plunge into the 32nm node.

Chips based on 32nm processes are expected to hit the market starting in 2009. By then, a new 300mm fab could go for Rs.39,549.84 crore ($10 billion), and process development costs may reach Rs.11,864.95 crore ($3 billion). R&D costs for 32nm chip design alone are expected to reach a whopping Rs.296.62 crore ($75 million), East said.

But chip design costs differ from company to company and are essentially "immaterial," he added. "Each company will have its own source of pain. The real point is that it is getting more expensive."

Soaring design costs are prompting more collaboration in the industry, East said. ARM intends to help chipmakers by getting a jump on the physical-IP market at the 32nm node. "That's one way to offset the risk," he said.

East nonetheless remains upbeat about the outlook for semiconductors. Pessimists, he acknowledged, claim the semiconductor business is "turning into the steel industry and we'd better turn off the lights and go home, but it really isn't turning out that way. The world of semiconductors is simply changing."

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