What's hindering SoC design today? Certainly, it isn't the silicon. A front-end mechanism—platform-based design—to assist engineers with the rapid integration of millions of gates is the missing link.
To realize the functional integration potential of 0.13-µm silicon, the industry needs to make many more chip design teams successful. Here's what's lacking in terms of technology and infrastructure to gain SoC success for the masses.
An industry-standard, complete socket interface specification: The idea behind platform-based SoC design is the integration of proprietary and commercial IP cores into a predefined grouping of functionality, leaving enough flexibility for designers to rapidly add their particular value.
Flexible platforms need a way of "plugging and playing" IP cores together, or a socket, as the Virtual Socket Interface Alliance (VSIA) calls it. While VSIA has made progress toward defining a standard IP core socket with its Virtual Component Interface (VCI), the VCI fails to incorporate critical control and test flows and lacks support infrastructure.
More importantly, like PCI SIG in the board world, flexible platforms need an organization of major system and semiconductor users to put its weight behind an IP core socket standard with proven implementation.
An adaptive interconnect system: An SoC platform is only as good as the underlying interconnect system that enables the IP cores to communicate with each other. Traditional on-chip buses that accompany popular microprocessor or compute-oriented cores are basically fixed structures that have great difficulty adapting to the dynamic communication requirements of multicore and multiprocessor SoC designs. SoC platforms based on these fixed-bus architectures must be extended and appended by the user in an ad-hoc fashion to serve the needs of customization to a particular application. To maximize design-reuse potential, an adaptive interconnect subsystem—a highly configurable and scalable communication fabric that treats IP core behavior and inter-core communication separately—is necessary.
Architectural exploration capability: A fast way to evaluate IP cores in the SoC context at a high level of abstraction is needed. Flexible platforms based on a configurable communication fabric are the perfect departure point for early architectural exploration of SoC designs. In the case of commercial IP cores, the ability to explore core integration around an SoC platform makes perfect sense as a "try before you buy" exercise. The Internet can facilitate architectural exploration by making a broad range of platforms available online. In large design teams and globally dispersed engineering organizations, a Web-enabled Extranet would permit the exploration of SoC design concepts that integrate platforms containing both commercial and internal proprietary cores.
Simplified and standardized IP core and platform license agreements: In addition to the technology infrastructure, platform-based SoC design requires a set of business processes to help facilitate the trade of commercial and proprietary IP between IP, system, and semiconductor companies. License agreements must address the protection of IP ownership rights, IP use and platform transfer privileges, and IP and platform performance warranties. The Virtual Component Exchange (VCX) has aided in the area of business models and license agreements, but the maturing of business processes into "best practices" requires more transactions and more SoC designs reaching production.
Contributed by Grant Pierce, president/CEO of Sonics Inc.