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

by Jack Horgan - Contributing Editor
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We marry processor, DSP, standard processor or what is called DLIW for very long instruction word. We marry all that and enable you to customize it at a click of the button to fit your needs. That is where we can get to performance levels and claim applications where standard processors would be very onerous in terms of silicon size and power.

Are there any competitors claiming to have similar capabilities in this area of customizable processors?

Good question. We are competing more with what is called RTL design. You can take an RTL design which is a fixed hardware configuration and build some register programmability, some flexibility. Some may think that they can get there. They may have to do some spins of silicon along the way. Again the challenge we have is to communicate better so that the customer can see the value upfront and not make the mistake where they need this programmability. But that approach is certainly entrenched. In some cases people have been using it for years. So it takes a long time for someone to relate to how you can really do that, to say “This is really interesting. Let me see how I can use
the product for building programmability I want.” That’s the bulk of it. On the other hand you could take a generic processor and say once I have a generic processor I can do anything and try to stretch from that generic processor into some specific application processing. Those two are possible competition for us.

If you have an off-the-shelf product, presumably potential customers could simply benchmark it and persuade themselves that the product could reduce TTM, costs and so forth. In the case of a customizable processor, how do you persuade potential customers or how do they persuade themselves that your product can achieve a level of desired level of performance?

That’s a good question. That is absolutely the question. It goes back to what you and I were discussing earlier about the standard cores. Because the standard cores could do that, they could show that yes you can achieve this level of performance. You could look at libraries. In some cases it is good enough to say that we can do an FFT function or another function in some many microseconds. Or someone would say “Wow, you can do that!” Standard cores and libraries go a long way to give the customer the proper understanding of what the product can do

I noticed that you have offices in Japan, Beijing, Taiwan and South Korea. Where are Tensilica sales occurring?

I would say Asia and the US. The US is a big region for us. Silicon Valley is definitely good grounds, a lot of semiconductor companies. Asia is definitely a good territory for us. We have high hopes for Europe, an extended Europe including Israel. But the volume currently in Europe is smaller than either the US or Asia.

In Asia do you have direct representation or do you go through local third parties?

Mostly we do direct because we want to delight our customers. The products we are offering are complex enough that we can delight our customers more by being direct.

Do you see your end users moving in ways that will increase their demand for your products?

Thinking about it right now, what would you say is the biggest driver in the electronic industry?

Consumer products?

Consumer electronics. I would say the other one is the Internet. I think that people have forgotten that in 2000 it was going to happen. But now with broadband able to be available to consumers at the speed they can enjoy. They do not have to wait for the dial tone connection to happen. Those two things means that consumers will more and more receive content from places that they don’t know in formats that have multiplied. When you are talking about forty or fifty audio formats and I have not counted all the video formats but there are a ton of them out there. Whether you want to do standard formats on set-top boxes and start adding real video formats or VISIC formats or Quicktime or
flash that you have on Google then the number of formats is increasing. So it is becoming increasingly difficult to do it efficiently for a hard-wired solution. The fact that the universe is increasing in terms of the formats. I include audio/video but if you are take a cell phone and go 3G and next generation which enable higher speeds which stresses a lot of circuitry as well as multiple formats. If you are in Korea, you want CDMA. If you are in Europe, you want GSM. All those multiple formats are driving the demand for Tensilica products.

In addition to that Moore’s law is working in our favor. With new geometry you can pack so many gates per square millimeter that the impact of programmability becomes very, very minor. The benefits of programmability outweigh the small impact on size. If you had one fixed format that is not going to change, you can always do it more efficiently with a custom design. But again the driving force through multiformats and the fact that geometries are such that you can pack so many gates in a small area is working in Tensilica’s favor. But the reverse argument of packing so many gates in a small area is that you have to build a lot of circuitry and functions in silicon to do justice and
have a horde of designers working arduously to be able to put out all the custom circuitry on time for those accelerated lifecycles. The other item that plays into that which you mention is time to market. Lifecycles are becoming shorter. I used to have my TV for ten years. Now I have a TV for three or four years. All these factors are playing into Tensilica’s favor.

Is there an IPO in Tensilica near future?

I would oppose it. But no plans at this time. Only the plans to build a great company, a profitable company. I believe that the employees and investors can be very well rewarded with a great company. Beyond that there are options. If the company decides it is the appropriate time. There is the stock market side and you can not control that. You decide at the appropriate time what the best course of action is.

When you took over as CEO, Chris Rowen, the founder and pervious CEO, moved to CTO. Not an uncommon occurrence in high tech companies. How is the relationship and split of respo9nsibilites working out?

First of all Chris is the most knowledgeable about the Tensilica products. He is a unique person in that he can quickly grasp an application issue and come back either directly or through the help of some of the people at Tensilica about what is the best match, how it could be best addressed with Tensilica’s products or with a combination of Tensilca products and some existing circuitry that the company has. Part of this is not just a CEO issue but the fact that the company is getting bigger and needs additional strength in the executive team. So the company chose to do it this way. Chris will now have time to work with customers and map out the best direction in terms of current
applications and future products with what the customer requirements are. I think that will be a very big portion of what he will be involved in. And the things we discussed about vertical segments. Chris will be intimately involved with the selection of those segments and in the development of the library and product directions for those segments.

I am out of questions. Anything you wish to add?

No! I am really excited about being on board and really pleased to see all those customers positive about Tensilica. When you join a company you worry abut what you were not told. So far I have not found any big surprise. On my end I have found more confirmation of the appreciation of how solid the products are.

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-- Jack Horgan, Contributing Editor.


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