AMCC, TSMC put new MPU spin on IBM technology

TechOnline India - September 25, 2009

Seeking to lower the cost of embedded designs, Applied Micro Circuits Corp. has rolled out a CMOS-based, 32-bit processor, built around IBM Corp.'s Power Architecture.

SUNNYVALE, Calif. -- Seeking to lower the cost of embedded designs, Applied Micro Circuits Corp. has rolled out a CMOS-based, 32-bit processor, built around IBM Corp.'s Power Architecture.

What's different is that the codenamed Gemini processor from AppliedMicro (formerly referred to as AMCC) will not be manufactured in a silicon-on-insulator (SOI) process by its long-time foundry partner--IBM. Instead, Gemini will be made using a 90-nm, bulk CMOS process from Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (TSMC), as part of a new and expanded foundry arrangement between the two companies.

The expanded agreement with TSMC signals the first time that AppliedMicro's embedded microprocessors are available beyond complex and costly SOI fabrication processes. SOI is said to provide lower leakage in higher-end designs, but bulk CMOS is less expensive.

Gemini, formally called the AppliedMicro APM 83290, is a 32-bit, 1.5-GHz embedded processor that is geared for control-plane applications in basestations, gateways and networking equipment, said Paramesh Gopi, president and chief executive of AppliedMicro (Sunnyvale, Calif.).

Based on a mix of somewhat rival technologies--such as IBM's Power Architecture and TSMC's 90-nm, CMOS technology--the dual-core Gemini is ''two times'' less expensive than competitive SOI-based devices on the market, Gopi said. ''This represents a new cost point'' for the embedded processor market, he told EE Times at the company's headquarters here.

It also represents a slight change in strategy for the company. For years, TSMC, and to a lesser degree, UMC, have been making LAN/WAN-based devices on a foundry basis for fabless AppliedMicro.

In 2004, AppliedMicro broaden its portfolio by acquiring the assets of IBM's embedded PowerPC 400 series RISC processors. AMCC paid IBM $227 million in cash for intellectual property licensing and acquisition of affiliated products. As part of the terms, IBM exclusively manufactured the embedded processors for AMCC.

Until now, AppliedMicro had its entire line of Power Architecture embedded processors made on a foundry basis by IBM. Those parts are based on a SOI technology at linewidth geometries down to 90-nm. The Power Architecture is IBM's proprietary processor architecture, which has been exclusively made within IBM's fabs.

Gopi insisted that AppliedMicro will continue to sell embedded processors based on SOI. AppliedMicro's Power Architecture processor families have found sockets in wireless access points, cellular basestations and multifunction printers. {pagebreak}Seeking to expand its portfolio into new and lower price points, the company has expanded its foundry deal with TSMC. To work with TSMC, AppliedMicro re-worked the processor core and had to re-negotiate the terms of its prior arrangement with IBM.

Under the terms, TSMC will make the Gemini embedded processor on a foundry basis for AppliedMicro. That processor will also be based on IBM's Power Architecture.

The first embedded processors will be manufactured on TSMC's 90-nm CMOS technology, with plans to devise chips based on 65- and 40-nm processes.

The APM 83290 itself consists of a processor core, packet processing and networking features. Geared for the control plane in networking applications, the device is sampling.

It competes with 32-bit products from Freescale Semiconductor Inc. Freescale sells a 32-bit embedded processor line based on IBM's Power Architecture and SOI. AppliedMicro also competes against Cavium Networks Inc., which sells devices based on technology from MIPS Technologies Inc.

NetLogic Microsystems Inc.'s recent move to acquire RMI Corp. will help the multicore processor specialist to devise new products more rapidly. The move will also intensify the battle in the emerging embedded multicore sector.

And not to be outdone, Intel Corp. competes in the embedded processor market with x86-based designs. Intel recently acquired RapidMind, a provider of software tools that allow development of C++ code for use on multiple processors.

Coming on the heels of Intel's acquisition of Wind River Systems, the move seems to be a part of a strategy by Intel to build up its in-house multicore software capability without depending on outside companies.

The issue with these devices, especially SOI-based products from Freescale, is cost, according to AppliedMicro. With TSMC's bulk CMOS process, AppliedMicro claims that it will disrupt the landscape with lower cost parts. ''All of the volume markets (in embedded processors) will be driven by our TSMC derivatives,'' Gopi said.

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