Say hello to my flexible friend

Makers of ASICs and ASSP products had better watch out. Electronics designers have a new flexible friend when it comes to meeting the cost and differentiation parameters inherent in consumer-electronics design projects. It’s no secret that designers working to create new electronic products, such as mobile phones, have to provide designs that appeal to consumers with interesting new functions. Moreover, they have to be delivered at a time and price that helps turn the product into a market success. Enter startup company XMOS Semiconductor, a fabless semiconductor and software company based in Bristol, England. It provides chips, software IP, and development tools to support this process. Flexible logic So what’s new about that? The difference is that XMOS Semiconductor is developing a completely new type of programmable semiconductor technology. Its called “Software Defined Silicon” (SDS), and XMOS believes it will equip consumer-electronics system designers with the unit cost advantage of SoCs and the flexibility of FPGAs. The company is working with TSMC, and is pleased with the relationship it’s formed with the Taiwanese fab. “TSMC has been very helpful in terms of providing very good feedback and a willingness to help with the general development of the product,” says James Foster, CEO of XMOS Semiconductor. Closing the technology gap “There’s a technology gap waiting to be filled in consumer-electronic system design. Designers need to more strongly differentiate their products and react more quickly to rapid changes in technology standards or fashion,” says Foster. “Existing SoC and FPGA solutions simply don’t offer the right combination of flexibility and cost.” Based on arrays of processors, SDS devices will allow system functions that would normally be implemented in hardware to be defined in software, unifying the design flow for software and hardware. XMOS expects to announce its first product during the first quarter of 2008. David May, XMOS Semiconductor CTO explains: “What are the options today? An ASIC’s NRE cost means it’s too risky and expensive in all but the highest volumes. The rigidity of ASSP means design freedom is limited and real creativity is effectively strangled. Finally, FPGA’s high complexity in programming and cost of silicon prohibits their use in high-volume consumer electronics.” XMOS’ event driven, multi-threaded processor engine called XCore has been developed to deliver fast real-time response and low silicon cost. The integration of pin control within XCore, coupled with an inter-core communication link named XLink, will allow complete systems (including interfaces) to be implemented in software. Product development employs a unified embedded software flow using C-based programming languages. Thread allocation The company developed its own version of “C” called XMOS XC, which provides greater access to multithreading and I/O-port control. The XMOS programming strategy is to allocate threads to logical tasks or sub-tasks whereby each thread is guaranteed a minimum performance ability. No dynamic load balancing is needed, and no interoperability issues crop up regarding IP integration. XMOS Semiconductor, headquartered in Bristol, U.K., was founded in July 2005. Its founders include David May, professor of computer science at Bristol University and James Foster, the former CEO of Oxford Semiconductor. The company is backed by venture capital firms Amadeus Capital Partners and Esprit Capital Partners.

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