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Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena is a freelance journalist and Editor of EDA Confidential at She can be reached at peggy at aycinena dot com.

Sonics: Leading the industry by example

November 30th, 2017 by Peggy Aycinena

San Jose-based Sonics is a long-established IP vendor
specializing in On-chip Networks [NoC] and Energy Processing Units [EPU]. Co-founded by CEO Grant Pierce and CTO Drew Wingard, the company has 150 parents and has “supported customer products that have shipped more than 4 billion SoCs.”

Currently Grant Pierce is an exceptionally busy man. Not only is he leading Sonics, he’s also serving as Chair of the ESD Alliance. It’s a fortunate circumstance to have Pierce leading the Alliance; his point of view is exactly what’s needed to help shape what was originally an EDA-focused organization into something that embraces the full set of constituencies driving electronic system design today. Pierce is strongly committed to new technologies and the small companies that drive the innovation.

Pierce and I spoke by phone in late November. He is clearly very enthused about the company and the ESD Alliance.


Q: How are things going?

Grant Pierce: Actually, things are pretty exciting for us.

Any student of Sonics knows that we’ve enhanced the business with the introduction of a product line for energy control on basically any kind of chip.

In particular, we are selling our energy processing units into SoC designs today – especially into our lead customer, who we are not allowed to identify but is the number one image sensor company on the planet. They have married us into their sensor architecture.

And, our NoC technology is heavily involved in the machine learning space. As we see it, market interest in machine learning represents [opportunities for] a lot of innovation, and for us a lot of design.

Q: Is there too much marketing, and not enough specific technology, around the term machine learning?

Grant Pierce: The first time machine learning came around as a conceptual technology in system architecture [it was intended] to increase automation in all kinds of industry. Machine learning was more associated with the autonomous operation of machines

Now, however, there is a depository of very big data sets are out there. Going in and analyzing those data sets, and making whole new associations and discoveries as to what that data can reveal to us, is the analytical component that’s [present] in machine learning today.

At this year’s DAC in Austin, it struck me when Joe Costello [CEO of Enlightened, Inc.] was talking about his company’s products for industrial control. They are being used to automate control of all the environmental things in a building, for instance.

In his keynote, Joe said data is the new oil and that really hit home with me. In earlier times, we were doing a lot of drilling but not finding a lot of oil. Now the oil’s out there.

Clearly, the real value today is in the data we’re collecting from essentially from every device in a building, including even the light fixtures.

Q: Any current announcements of interest for Sonics?

Grant Pierce: Increasingly, the news is around our energy processing unit. We call them EPUs.

We’ve extended the level of hardware-based autonomous control of energy consumption on chips by incorporating our newest product line, the IC3-P3. It’s a system that brings in DVFS functionality [dynamic voltage and frequency scaling], body bias control, and more programmable elements around the operating points – in particular, how they can be configured and dynamically implemented within the chips we go into.

The technology is really exciting, although we are stuck in that same old place a lot of IP companies get into where customers use your technology, but don’t want you to announce it. Fortunately, we have more customers now who will be announced very soon.

[Suffice it to say] we are working with the number one imaging processing company on the planet, the number one semiconductor company on the planet, and with the fellows who operate the largest data centers on the planet.

These [customer engagements] span all of our NoC and EPU product lines. Clearly, we are continuing to push the bleeding edge with our products in the marketplace.

Scott Seiden: [Marketing Director, also on the call] And we are developing an ecosystem.

Grant Pierce: Yes, last month we announced a partnership with Moortec [specialists in embedded in-chip sensing] which is part of that ecosystem effort.

If you go out and look at companies today, and the sensitivities they have with respect to their energy control on chips, we are seeing their chips being forced into increasingly extreme environments.

At Sonics, we offer [the ability] to create an optimal operating point for these chips. To do that, we take information from all available data points that might be operating in the chip, and then essentially control all of those elements.

We go through the clocks that are running, the frequencies and voltages, and look at the temperatures the chip is having to operate within.

To help with that, we expect to develop a rich ecosystem with Moortec. They offer us a temperature sensor on-chip, which can help with decision makings and the settings to ensure the optimal use of power.

Q: You have a very interesting road map. How old is Sonics?

Grant Pierce: [laughing] Old enough to drink – finally! We’re 21 years old.

Q: Could you have predicted at the beginning, all that you’re all involved in today?

Grant Pierce: Actually, no.

I’m surprised, in the overall sense, that we’ve gone further with regards to our methodologies and the whole of the EDA process around chip design, but there’s still a long way to go.

Where we’re headed next will include things like machine learning and the cognitive computing so many people are talking about.

Yes, you could ask if these are really new ideas, or just ideas that have found their time, and certainly in the design space there are a lot of good ideas out there that have yet to find their time. But overall, all of the new ideas offer a rich opportunity for all of us.

Particularly, subsystems becoming a point of commerce in the market. People now see the value of being able to integrate pieces of IP together to create a larger object abstracted from the details of the IP involved. This is yet another idea that is now finding its time.

Q: Speaking of changes, has the Arm/SoftBank acquisition changed the landscape for other IP providers?

Grant Pierce: It hasn’t significantly changed things for us, but it is certainly a sea change to see that amount of available money in the market for the technology. Now we will need to see where that money goes.

Masayoshi Son [SoftBank CEO] is a true visionary and has surrounded himself with some very deep and hands-on technologists. I think what SoftBank represents is an opportunity to seed the marketplace with lots of new money, to seed the world with funding for lots of new ideas.

Will that focus go down a specific path to be sure the marketplace can take full advantage? Will there be enough concentrated investment to make wholesale changes? The answers [are not yet clear].

If cognitive computing, for instance, is one of the new changes, it will require some very good taste in choosing the investments and [where to place] raw dollars into the marketplace.

As I see it right now, the SoftBank/Arm acquisition hasn’t created a sea change yet, but I can imagine one coming.

Q: What about changes associated with RISC-V?

Grant Pierce: Well, RISC-V is certainly interesting from the standpoint of the impact it’s had in changing the business model for micro-controllers as offered by Arm.

But I’m an old processor guy, and I also take note of the fact that the MIPS architecture has been spun out from what we knew of as Imagination Technologies. It now stands alone again. It will be interesting to see what happens under the guidance of Tallwood [VC investors who now own MIPS] and to see what they can do to change the landscape of the IP industry.

I worked at MIPS many years ago, so I have an affinity for that brand. Both MIPS and RISC-V have the potential to make an important impact in the marketplace if decisions are made in good taste about what kinds of markets they go after – application specific or geographic.

Q: Does Sonics attend the annual IP-SoC conference in Grenoble?

Grant Pierce: We did not attend this year. However, we are participating in the upcoming IP show in Santa Clara, Reuse 2017.

Q: I just wrote a blog praising the headliners at IP-SoC, Synopsys’ Aart de Geus and Arm’s Robin Saxby.

Grant Pierce: Yeah, I’ve known both Aart and Robin for a long time, but their showing up for IP-SoC is a sort of legacy of a DAC [style of thinking]. I would be more excited about IP-SoC if there was more of a focus on a system-level architecture and the application requirements that are driving the designers.

Q: What about DAC? Is there a good ROI for participation there?

Grant Pierce: We did not exhibit on the DAC floor this year, although we have in prior years.

Going forward, I think we need to have greater influence from the IP community in how DAC is formatted and presented. I felt that getting involved with the board of the ESD Alliance was one way to do that. [ESD Alliance is a sponsor of DAC.]

As a result, we have certainly made some changes at the ESD Alliance in moving it from its EDA roots, with more emphasis on the system aspects of design that we all participate in. But that type of changes takes longer.

Meanwhile, DAC must adapt to that greater system-level focus, and attracting IP is part of that change.

DAC has had a focus on the physical layer – very close to the process technologies and how we manufacture chips – and grew from there, eventually evolving to having much more of a focus on the software side of the problem.

But the present demand for expanding DAC into a system-focus requires attracting the architects that are implementing these systems, the chip sets and multiple implementation technologies that range from CMOS to FD-SOI and FPGAs.

Clearly, some pretty tight coupling will be needed for the new cognitive applications, coupling between the actual cognitive networks built into these chips and how that will change will affect the physical architecture of those chips – especially when you push out to the edge.

[laughing] Although, I guess we are now calling it the fog, not the edge.

Q: The problem with the fog, it’s not a very crisp term like the edge, and seems to let people off the hook for defining distinct technology targets.

Grant Pierce: [laughing] Yes. You can’t see us in the fog, but we’re there.

Q: Why belong to the ESD Alliance?

Grant Pierce: As I mentioned, I wanted to be an agent of change for where the organization should go. I thought the organization needed to be re-imagined from its roots, although its roots are good and strong.

ESD Alliance is an organization, in a nutshell, that gets together to execute as a group the things that no single company could execute on its own. That’s a great motivation for the companies to come together.

But now we also need to recognize that when it was originally formed – however many decades ago – its purpose was to serve the new, fledgling companies that were in that space called Electronic Design Automation.

Of course, now those companies are big, while IP is still the undiscovered frontier, so we have got to re-imagine, from those original roots, what can make the ESD Alliance very valuable again for the smaller and emerging companies that are part of the market.

Good old Arm, Synopsys, and our friends at Cadence – they’re now so large and independent in their ability to speak to the marketplace, they’ve kind of forgotten what it feels like to be a small company.

They all go out and acquire little technology companies in order to feed the machines they’ve built with innovation – not that they don’t innovate internally – and as a result, they lose touch with what it’s like for the smaller companies.

Q: What is the funniest things that’s ever happened to you during your career?

Grant Pierce: I’ve thought about this question, and this is more fun than funny.

It was the strangest thing when I discovered out in the community around our business that myself and several other executives are pretty accomplished musicians.

[As a result], the largest amount of time I’ve spent with Aart de Geus has been while playing music. The group we had – the Full Disclosure Blues Band – played at every DAC for over a decade, and included Gary Smith. The group was a nice combination of EDA people, customers, and folks that analyze the industry.

Aart is a dyed-in-the-wool blues man, however, while I’m more of a jazz player, so he has moved on to his current band, Legally Blue.

But I’ll always remember how much fun we had playing at DAC in those years – especially the legacy that Gary Smith left behind for me, as an analyst and a musician.


Press Release …

October 25, 2017 – Sonics, the world’s foremost supplier of on-chip network (NoC) and power management technologies and services, and Moortec, specialists in embedded in-chip sensing, today announced their partnership that integrates the companies’ products to provide advanced power management techniques to SoC and MCU designers. The partnership couples Sonics’ ICE-P3 with Moortec’s compelling Temperature Sensors to enable temperature-compensated, dynamic voltage and frequency scaling (DVFS) in chip designs intended for power-sensitive devices such as mobile/handheld and the IoT.

Employing DVFS enables chip designers to dramatically reduce energy consumption by lowering frequency to match dynamic throughput conditions and simultaneously lowering the voltage to the minimum that safely supports that frequency. However, the minimum voltage depends upon both semiconductor process skew and on-chip temperature, which frequently causes energy-wasting overdesign to cover worst-case process and temperature conditions. While it is increasingly common to re-optimize voltage values for process skew during manufacturing test, compensating for temperature requires on-chip thermal monitoring. Thermal sensors also provide invaluable alarm conditions that warn of thermal runaway conditions.


Bio …

Grant Pierce co-founded Sonics in September 1996 and has served as CEO and President since March 1997, and as chairman of the board of directors since February 1997.

From 1990 to 1996, Pierce served as CFO, VP and GM for MicroUnity Systems Engineering, a digital media and communications devices company. From 1988 to 1990, he was CFO at ParcPlace Systems, a company selling object-oriented software development environments.

From 1984 to 1988, Pierce served as corporate controller for MIPS Computer Systems, a fabless semiconductor company. His extensive experience also includes work at Convergent Technologies, Inc., ITT Qume, and Arthur Andersen and Co.

Pierce has a BS in Business Administration-Accounting from California State University, Hayward and is a former CPA.


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