Intel now has the tools in place – in particular an on-chip interconnect fabric, an extensive IP library and software – to make a success of its system-on-chip engineering effort, according to Bill Leszinske, general manager of technical planning and business development at Intel's Atom processor SoC development group.
Intel has been striving to break out of the computer sector for many years and its system-on-chip engineering group is a key part of that effort.
Few have doubted that Intel has a high performance processor in the Atom and the manufacturing processing lead.But a couple of years ago observers questioned the power performance of Atom and the SoC group seemed to toy with third party manufacturing a deal with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. to allow Atom-based SoCs to be made there.
However, no takers were heard of and there was criticism that while Atom may be good for PC-like applications extending down to netbooks, Intel lacked the broaderinfrastructure, particularly the on-chip and complementary IP blocks, to pursue diverse applications.
Leszinske said Intel is aiming at an SoC power consumption budget of about 7 or 8 watts down to less than one watt and is now accelerating its introduction of leading-edge low power processes tailored for SoC applications and the low power Atom cores to exploit those processes.
Intel is introducing the Saltwell core at 32-nm this year and the Silvermont core in 22-nm in 2013 and Airmont core in 14-nm in 2014. This is almost twice the pace of the two-yearly manufacturing process introduction that is traditional at Intel, said Leszinske.
"SoC engineering has strong engagement with TMG," said Leszinske referring to Intel's Technology Manufacturing Group. "This allows us to best optimize SoC processes for target applications. Medfield, due in the first half of 2012 is a chip based on the Saltwell core, which Cloverfield, due in 2H12, is a dual-core implementation of Saltwell.
In addition, Intel has more than just CPU and graphics performance to offer but IP and interconnect assets to create complete solutions.
From IOSF to software via IP
Intel has developed what Leszinske called a chassis to allow IP blocks to be
swapped in and out for different applications.This is called the Intel On-Chip
System Fabric (IOSF) and it performs an analogous role to the AMBA interconnection scheme used in the ARM community.
There is little detail about the IOSF in the public domain although engineers have presented at a couple of conferences, Leszinske said. "It allows us to connect our own and third-party IP, Imagination graphics as an example," he said. "It's scalable, supports multicore operation and maintains PCI order, which is important for compatibility of software," he added.
The use of IOSF is paying off by maximizing design efficiency with modularity and reuse for multiple markets. The most important aspect of IOSF is that it lets Intel take a system-level approach to power management, Leszinske said.
Intel's IP situation has also been changed by a make, buy or license strategy implemented over the last couple of years. Intel now reckons to have wide portfolio of IP ranging from graphics, audio and video to wired connectivity standards through to wireless standards.
"An example of licensing is Imagination. We opted to buy Texas Instrument's
cable modem business. We bought a company called Silicon Hive for image
processing and Infineon [purchase] brings a set of wireless modems."
Leszinske then made the point that Intel has thousands of software engineers all working on necessary software stacks. This work goes well beyond writing drivers for software-programmable chips and includes contributions to MeeGo for mobile, the Wndows 8 environment, VxWorks for embedded applications and Intel's security acquisition McAfee. "This [software] will be the strength of Intel going forward," said Leszinske.
And Leszinske makes it clear that success is already coming with millions of SoCs
shipped already. Intel SoCs drive digital televisions from Sony and set-top
boxes from Telecom Italia and Comcast. Intel is clearly in netbooks, single-board computers and communications networking and servers and in automotive infotainment systems. The devices shipping are in 45-nm process technology but 32-nm SoCs are starting this year in tablet computers and smartphone applications are expected in 2012, said Leszinske.
Lezsinke said Intel SoCs are competitive today and that he expects Intel to have leading technology performance and leading performance per watt at 22-nm and below. However, it is the mix of leading-edge hardware performance and software that make the difference. "We understand the needs of our customers," he said.