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Marvell's quest: Connecting the next billion users

Posted: 14 Apr 2009     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Sheeva  ARM processor  netbooks  mobile handset 

Sutardja claimed, "Those days are over when OEMs chose different processor cores for different consumer products." ARM-based Sheeva processors, loaded with interfaces, audio, graphics, Ethernet, 3G and Wi-Fi, for example, will become an alternative to a variety of SoCs that dominate and fragment today's consumer devices, he said. "Not using the same engine isn't making [an end system] any cheaper."

A healthy dose of scepticism is warranted, however.

First, the consumer market is notoriously broad and fragmented. Second, Marvell's consumer device gambit is still largely unproven.

While acknowledging that Marvell's new Sheeva products "can compete in set-top box, Blu-ray and picture frames," Linley Gwennap, president of market researcher Linley Group, said: "These markets are currently dominated by MIPS and PowerPC processors."

McGregor called Sutardja's "same-engine" theory "not practical" and "not likely anytime soon." That's because different devices have different performance, power, form factor, thermal and other design constraints. "It would be nice to have one processor that could do it all, but it is just not practical, and will likely not be practical for some time," he said.

McGregor added: "Using different processors can aid the OEMs in adding value by adding differentiation to their products. Just look at how many ARM cores and processors are available. STMicroelectronics and TI have even announced multi-core processors based on the Cortex-A9 architecture."

Marvell's competitors are beginning to stir. "In the Shiva-class, TI is the only one shipping in volume, with their OMAP3, in the ARCHOS 5 PMP," said Will Strauss, president of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based market researcher Forward Concept. "The OMAP3 has also been announced in the upcoming Palm Pre. Qualcomm's Snapdragon has been announced in a Toshiba cell phone that hasn't yet shipped."

Added Strauss, "No others are yet on the street."

Marvell has more than a few advantages, starting with its ARM architecture licence. It's one of few companies in the world that can legally design and sell ARM-compliant CPUs.

Most in the industry have yet to recognise Marvell as a full-fledged, high-performance processor company. Marvell is widely known as a leading supplier of disc-drive controllers, Ethernet chips and mobile Wi-Fi chips in which ARM-based CPUs are used to control the flow of data.

In reality, its new Sheeva family of ARM CPUs are not the first Marvell has implemented on its own, higher performance architecture. Many of Marvell's homegrown ARM cores are embedded in custom processors. Architectural details have never been disclosed.

Marvell, for example, has optimised its own dual-core ARM over the last four years, said Sutardja. Further, Sheeva is not Marvell's first gigahertz-level ARM processor. Sutardja said Marvell first used its gigahertz ARM processor several years ago in custom-designed printer engines.

"We've developed our own compilers, debuggers and verification tools. They have been optimised. Our chips have been tested by big customers," he claimed.

"Marvell has the oldest and the most mature, high performance ARM architecture, developed on its own, already shipped in hundreds of millions of units," Sutardja claimed.

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