Systems on a chip integrate functions

DN Staff

May 3, 1999

4 Min Read
Systems on a chip integrate functions

One of the latest trends in semiconductors is putting different semiconductor functions on one silicon chip, which Corrigan says increases performance, lowers system costs, and accelerates time to market.

Design News: What is a system on a chip?

Corrigan: The more people throughout the industry talk about "system on a chip" (SOC), the more it becomes conventional wisdom. Employing Moore's law of twice the performance every 18 months, that translates into more functionality on a single chip. For example, Ethernet used to be a stand-alone chip. Those days are behind us as Ethernet is now one of the IP (intellectual-property) cores that are used in a single-chip solution for the Internet-driven networking market. For LSI Logic, system on a chip means integrating the functionality--or the heart--of a complete electronic system onto one chip. This includes processing elements, application-specific IP, and storage elements. The system-on-a-chip solution becomes the Rosetta Stone that defines a particular electronic product.

Q: What advantages does SOC offer compared to using multiple standard chips?

A: The benefits of using a system on a chip are numerous. It leads to lower system costs, expanded functionality, improved reliability, and reduced power consumption. SOC designs can also lead to revolutionary new products, and speed access to end products. Historically, single-chip systems have won every time. Look what happened to the calculator once all the functionality could be placed on a single chip. The mechanical calculator disappeared overnight and the pocket calculator became a low-cost Christmas stocking stuffer. SOC really illustrates the serendipity of the semiconductor business: less cost, lower power, greater functionality.

Q: What is "intellectual property" in the SOC world?

A: Without intellectual property, you cannot have a system on a chip. A company needs to have a reservoir of IP. These are industry-standard building blocks such as microprocessors, network controllers, digital signal processors, and video-compression engines to mix and match in order to meet the SOC requirements of the customer. You can't have a system on a chip with only 90 percent of the critical IP. You must have all the vital IP to achieve a SOC.

Q: What are some examples of systems on a chip?

A: Some examples of single-chip systems include LSI Logic's DCAMTM-101 chip for digital cameras, a DVD engine, and a Fibre Channel disk-controller chip. But for a company to really claim it has an SOC solution, it must also focus on providing complete systems for its customers. Take the single-chip solution for DVD as an example. We provide the navigation and user-interface software, the hardware platform, and engineering support services. So aside from developing a system on a chip that defines the end-system architecture, a total system solution includes offering the operating system and application software.

Q: What are some of the growth drivers for SOC applications?

A: The phenomenal growth of the Internet and electronic commerce are major drivers for the SOC revolution. In the early part of the decade, the semiconductor industry was PC-centric. Now the industry is Internet-centric with the PC serving as a mere peripheral for accessing the Internet. That also means that networking, storage components, and storage systems--just to name a few examples--will all be driven by the growth of the Internet.

Q: What is the future for system on a chip?

A: The next level for system on a chip is delivering "multiple systems on a chip"--the ability to converge digital logic, RF, mixed-signal, and embedded-memory functions onto a single chip. This technology can serve both the high-speed computer and the low-power portable consumer and communications markets. The automobile of the future will be more than just transportation. It will enable the driver to initiate and receive phone calls, receive digital broadcasts, pinpoint the car's exact location, and even check stock quotes on the Web--all through the integration of multiple systems on a chip.

In 1981, Wilf Corrigan co-founded LSI Logic with the aim of selling custom-made semiconductors for use in consumer devices and computers. Today, the company enables customers to build complete systems on a single chip with its CoreWare(R) design program. Corrigan joined Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp. in 1968 and held a series of management positions before becoming president and CEO in July 1974, and chairman in 1977. Before joining Fairchild, he was director of Transistor Operations at Motorola's Semiconductor Products Div. Corrigan graduated from the Imperial College of Science (London) in 1960 with a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering.

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