August 04, 2008
Tensilica and Customizable Processors
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Jack Horgan - Contributing Editor

by Jack Horgan - Contributing Editor
Posted anew every four weeks or so, the EDA WEEKLY delivers to its readers information concerning the latest happenings in the EDA industry, covering vendors, products, finances and new developments. Frequently, feature articles on selected public or private EDA companies are presented. Brought to you by If we miss a story or subject that you feel deserves to be included, or you just want to suggest a future topic, please contact us! Questions? Feedback? Click here. Thank you!

What attracted you to Tensilica?

First of all it is a company that has succeeded in the IP business. A lot of companies have had difficulty in the IP business. To get that kind of momentum is a testament to how good the technology is and the products are. Virtually everyone I talked to including potential competitors were telling me that they had a very good engineering team and very good products. This is a good foundation. And by the way so far since I have been with the company my observation is still the same. That is what I got from the outside before I joined the company and what I am getting now from customers that are using the product is the same. They are very pleased with it and pleased with the support our
engineers are providing. It was an interesting challenge to basically take that solid base in terms of both product and revenue and be able to take that to the next level; to make the footprint two or three times the current size.

How does Magnum Semiconductor compare to Tensilica in terms of size, business model, stage, …?

Magnum is over three times the size. Magnum is an SOC supplier. It is a customer or could be customer of the type of product Tensilica has. It is on the other side of the fence from Tensilica. Consequently, I have first hand appreciation of what a customer would want to see and why and of what would matter to them. That is pretty helpful. As it turns out I have a lot of colleagues that are in the semiconductor industry and that are Tensilica customers today. It is interesting form the customer’s side and I view this as an advantage that I have a lot of friends that are or could be Tensilica customers.

According to the press announcement your objective over the next year or so is to lead the company in its next stage of growth.

We are reviewing where we are with current products. It is actually shorter than a year. I wish I had a year. The tech industry moves very fast. But absolutely to look at the direction that the company is taking and where is the best bet for the company. In some cases you need to narrow the funnel and focus in order to get the maximum impact. By doing so you are taking a greater risk, that’s the name of the game.

Is the key to growth investment in sales and marketing, new products, new territories, ?

Of course it is a combination of everything. I think we have tremendous opportunity in Japan. If we had more sales persons, we could grow faster. New products? Absolutely! The more products, the more perfect the product is, the more features the better off you are. But largely I think a more marketing and sales orientation. Based on that engineering will follow. If I had to look at all the issues on the table, I would give a push to sales and marketing.

What is the biggest challenge or obstacle to achieving the objectives?

The company has made significant effort in developing standard cores and standard products in addition to its foundation which is Xtensa customizable processors. That is an area that is pretty well developed, video and baseband communication. Those three areas have shown that the company adds value to first to customers who do not like to get into the details and just want a ready-made solution and second to customers who can not relate to how customizable processor technology will help them. Say someone is in baseband communications. Based upon the understanding that comes from some benchmark on how well we can do for some kind of error correction circuitry, they realize what they could do with the product in addition to having programmability. The standard product strategy has helped us twofold. One for the customers who want a ready-made solution but also for the potential customer of customizable processors that now can relate to how they can solve their problems with the products that we are bringing. That is our challenge. In many cases if you look at it once the customer uses the product the feedback is very good. I got feedback from a top five semiconductor company saying that “We are using your solution for audio. We tried to come up with algorithms that we could not run. We came up with a list of them but so far we have been able to do them
all.” Once customers use the product, they are really happy with it. The challenge for us is to get more connection with the customers so that can lead to “Okay, now I get what this product can do.”

How big a company is Tensilica?


Revenue, employees, ../

We are about 135 people. Current revenue is in the high twenties.

Tensilica has two primary product lines: Diamond is the off-the-shelf- standard products and Xtensa is the customizable processor line.

That’s the current product names. I can share with you that we are moving toward a functional segmentation. As you know HiFi is what we do for audio. We are moving towards that for audio, VDO for video and Vectra for baseband DSP.

Is the growth potential for Tensilica in standard processor or customizable processors?

I view the problem more as what can we do for someone doing audio, for someone doing video to solve their problem. We need to have the expertise. We need to be viewed as the experts in those areas. On the audio side we support forty to fifty different standards. When we walk into the customers’ shop, we offer a full solution. Yes, we have some customers who have specific requirements. We can seamlessly enable those customers to use standard cores and to go to the next level which is standard cores plus predetermined configuration. That is very simple because you go on the software and just click on the configuration type. That is all you have to do. If you want to further optimize, then they have the possibility of customizing that. It could be just for audio or mixing it with some additional functions, or taking a subset. Then they have these customization options or they can simply write some C-code or Verilog code type formats instructions that they can customize. The big part of what we do is not only enabling them to come up with a customized processor but really what we offer and spend a lot of time and effort on is finding out the whole set of software tools that come along with that specific processor, i.e. compliers, debuggers, verification tools. If you look at product development, we are going to introduce two new major products at the end of
this year. Basically one year after we have delivered a core to a couple of alpha site customers, we make sure for all the generations of the customized versions that all the tools and systems are solid. We are spending a lot of money enabling us to seamlessly provide an entire suite of software to the customers.

What is the value pitch to the potential customer? What does this approach provide that the customers’ current tools and methodology does not?

Processors are good when programmability is needed. Programmability can be required in two ways. One is that you have a very fast evolving world. So you need something that is flexible enough so that if there is a new standard or an evolving standard, you need programmability to sustain that rate of change. Second you have certain functions that are continuously evolving. Take a video system. There are always ways to improve the picture. It could be tiny improvements but you have to be able to do that continuously over time. Therefore a programmable solution helps you because you do not have to spin another chip in order to get your improvements. Hopefully you did the right thing
because if you did not, it could take a couple of tapeouts. Today mask sets are running $1 million at aggressive geometries. This is a very expensive proposition. Now once you consider those facts and say that I need something that is programmable, then we have the best solution because most processor companies or DSP companies will provide what they think is the best cut. They make one product and do all the testing on that product and provide a couple of configurations. Then you have to map your application to that. But nothing can be better especially when you start stressing performance than something that is customizable to your needs.

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-- Jack Horgan, Contributing Editor.


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