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 What Would Joe Do?
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena is a freelance journalist and Editor of EDA Confidential at www.aycinena.com. She can be reached at peggy at aycinena dot com.

IP Update: Barbour @ CAST

 
March 8th, 2012 by Peggy Aycinena

 

Even this deep into the era of IP and design reuse, it’s been my impression that things are not quite as far along as many in the industry would like you to believe. With that attitude in mind, I spoke with CAST CEO Hal Barbour, who convinced me otherwise, although with several caveats.

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Q: Are people still reluctant to buy IP?

Hal Barbour: There’s been a big change. There used to be fly-by-night IP companies, which were really services companies, so people were leery.

Over the last few years, however, people have pulled back from those attitudes. Some “IP” companies have gone out of business – they couldn’t survive on just selling data sheets – while the established suppliers have become more mature. Now people know who is and isn’t [a reliable supplier].

Q: Was that the case 10 years ago, or has it evolved over the last decade?

Barbour: I would say 10 years ago, everybody was still leery. They didn’t know if they could trust outside suppliers.

But time to market pressures have grown such that people found they couldn’t reinvent the wheel for lots of the IP used by their competitors, or other people doing similar projects, so they started to go outside for processors and peripheral devices such as USBs, and so forth.

There’s still some concern lingering today – it’s not completely gone – but you’ll find that customers are definitely a lot more knowledgeable about IP.

Q: Are there tools available for comparing and contrasting similar IP offerings?

Barbour: That’s actually a very touchy question. Getting IP is a lot more than: Does it meet the spec? Today, it has to do with the quality of support from the providers: How quickly can answers can be had? It’s not just the documentation today, it’s the whole experience.

We tend to find a lot of companies with an internal group, small or large, whose whole job is to deal with IP vendors. IP contracts today are somewhat similar, but people know what to look for and it’s tough to automate this process. You either have to have the time, or the people on board, to make the necessary qualitative judgments before you buy.

In reality, there are only a few showstoppers that can cause problems, but you need to know what questions to ask in advance: Can I do this with your IP? Can I do that?

Q: Do wrappers defined by the various IEEE standards make it easier to drop IP into designs?

Barbour: Yes, I think so, because it makes IP use more straightforward. There are also integration tools that make things easier, as well as helpful documentation standards.

Q: Who’s responsibility is it to understand how to integrate an IP block? Do you need to talk up somebody’s integration tools when you’re selling your IP, or do the customers already need to know how to do it?

Barbour: It depends. The people who sell IP will concentrate on their own area of secret sauce, and we’re trying to concentrate on those bits – the popular interfaces, the OCP-IP compatible products, etc.  But, we also have to have knowledge of – and support for – most of the popular busses today.

Q: What’s the top business model for IP vendors today? A one-time use fee? The royalty model?

Barbour: Again, it depends. All of us tend to fall under the umbrella of being in the IP business, but if you peel back the layers, there are an immense number of different types of business models. And they don’t look like each other at all!

For stuff that’s watermarked in the design, for instance, those kinds of IP may be sold on the royalty model, but there’s no real industry standard here. Certainly people are talking about it, but the [system’s] not fully workable as yet.

Q: Without watermarking, usage can’t really be tracked for the payment of royalties?

Barbour: If you’re going to a customer and selling them parts [of a design] based on royalties, you have to know that the foundry will track the usage. It’s easy to calculate what’s owed if it’s tied directly to the physical library that’s used.

But for HDL used further up in the design process than the physical layer, it’s a little more difficult to determine. It’s not an impossible task, and there are people who are proposing ways to do it, but currently there’s no one standard way.

With the high-end stuff, however – if you look at the ARM processors, for example, the costs are two-fold. There are fees for designing with the RTL, and there are also significant royalties.

On the other hand, with standards-based IP, a spec is a spec is a spec and it’s difficult to demand royalties. USB 2.0, for example, is the same no matter who you get it from, so the difference comes down to quality, price, support and documentation.

With our 8-bit 8051 processor, for instance, we’ve got more than 50% market share because of our support, and we’ve been doing it for a long, long time. So that’s where we’ve been going in the 32-bit world without a royalty business model – succeeding based on quality, cost, support and documentation.

Q: So, do you offer your business model as a differentiator?

Barbour: Yes, in the standards-based world. But we’re also integrating a number of blocks with supersets of IP, which is a future direction in the industry, supersets of IP which are like whole sub-systems.

Q: Is the possibly illogical conclusion from all of this to just outsource the design of the whole chip?

Barbour: Yeah, but the technology and Moore’s Law are still progressing, so that’s not the reality today. One vendor may be doing standards-based IP, another may be doing mixed-signal, another may be doing the back-end design part, while another may be doing the software blocks – the drivers and things that integrate it all together.

And then there’s eSilicon. Their model is cradle to grave: We’ll do HDL to layout to firmware to software to the foundry interface, and we’ll provide the whole chip.

At the other end, there’s CAST, a company’s that expert in certain areas. We’re very, very good in digital, although now a lot of our customers are analog guys – those guys with heavy analog content on-chip.

Now we’re bringing our digital expertise to the analog guys, as well. We’re not analog experts, and make no bones about it, but we understand their problems and most certainly can help.

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