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The ARM Ecosystem is the Real Story

By Dan Holden, Low-Power Design

ARM techcon

ARM Techcon – November 10, 2010 -- The ARM TechCon developer’s conference got underway Tuesday with an extensive lineup of presentations, keynotes and supporting cast members. Indeed, perhaps the most notable aspect of ARM TechCon is the supporting cast.

The ARM TechCon web site lists 145 separate products from scores of design houses, IP companies, software development tool makers and more. Chris Turner, product marketing manager at ARM’s processor division, said the company has more than 700 ecosystem partners. And it is this ecosystem, analysts say, that provides the leverage necessary to get into 95 percent of all cell phones as well as many other mobile and high-performance devices that are now the growth centers of the tech industry.

ARMs and The Man

“Oh yes, it’s definitely the ecosystem,” said Gary Smith, principal and lead analyst for Gary Smith EDA. “This goes back to a similar experience that I had in the 1970s. I was at Signetics when we were designing the 2650, Intel had the 8080. We came out first and were generally considered the best processor around. Intel won that because we thought we were still selling an IC and they knew they were selling a microprocessor.”

The point, said Smith, was that Intel created an ecosystem including a development system and a cadre of engineers trained on programming the 8080. “By that time, Intel had about 2,000 programmers, Motorola had about 200 and Signetics had about 20. And that turned out to be the deciding factor,” said Smith. “It appears now that ARM is doing to Intel what Intel did to us. When I ask anybody who has the best development tools, they say, ’Oh, ARM.’” 

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have processor IP like the Cortex-A4,- A9 and -A15 to talk about. These cores are now at the heart of many tablets, cell phone and high-end server designs.  Each is also a notable example of power-efficient design.

“I do think that ARM has the best processor,” said Smith, “Intel still thinks they can compete by working with Microsoft.  But Wintel is just not making it in the mobile space.”

Low Power in the Ecosystem

Wintel’s weak presence in the mobile market might give some ecosystem vendors cause to rest on their laurels, but that isn’t happening. One reason is that the drive to create ever more power-efficient processor cores has put a lot of pressure on the ARM ecosystem to stay at the top of its game.  The impetus is clear: power efficiency is a driving consideration for almost every new design.

The decision to save power, and to choose certain power saving techniques, must be made up front at the system level. Kevin Chen, senior director of notebook system architecture at Tessera, agrees. “You have to make your low-power plans at the architectural level.”

In fact, many design teams begin power planning even earlier, said Ben Spriggs, field applications engineer at Arrow Electronics. “Typically we go in and talk to the customer, assess what their needs are and then we pull together a spreadsheet that lists all the requirements. At that point, we figure out that, hey, you’re going to be able to get this level of performance with this power draw, but if you want to save power you’re going to have to do this.”

Of course, now there are tools in the ecosystem that can get designers off the spreadsheets and into early design analysis at a very high level of abstraction. But the point is that once the determination is made that some power saving techniques will be needed, the ecosystem kicks in with appropriate solutions.

“That’s right,” said Phil Dworsky, director of strategic alliances at Synopsys. “When we think of power savings, what we’re really talking about is energy efficiency, and that’s highly dependent upon what you are trying to accomplish, whether it’s maximizing performance with the minimum amount of leakage possible or just trying to achieve the longest battery life. [To do either] you have to have to have a mature design flow with low power capabilities incorporated into all the tools.”

Interestingly, not every power saving technique will be a straight power/performance tradeoff.  Sometimes, they come from a completely different angle.

For instance, Arrow’s Spriggs said some of his military clients insist on power islands for each subsystem to ensure that the destruction of one part of a piece of hardware doesn’t preclude the rest of the system from operating as needed, even on battery power, for many hours.

As engineers become more cognizant of the system-level requirements of new media devices, they’re finding more opportunities to save power and increase efficiency at each point in the design process, from the transistor level, to individual blocks, cores, subsystems, chips, packages and finally system-level designs, they find opportunities to save power and increase efficiency at each point along the way.

And that makes for a very busy ecosystem indeed.

Sidebar: How to Save Power Without Tweaking your Processor

During the ARM TechCon I had the pleasure of running into Kevin Chen, senior director of notebook system architecture at Tessera. During our lunch conversation, he brought up an interesting application that allowed his company to save a significant amount of processing power without tweaking – or even using – a microprocessor.

 “For our EDOF (digital camera) product, use MEMS for autofocus and shutter capabilities,” said Chen. “It takes about 1/200th the power as a microprocessor-based solution.” 

Chen said Tessera acquired its MEMS technology in May of this year when it bought Siimple Corp. for about $15 million.

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