The processor-IP market continues to grow as more SoC designers adopt licensed cores for CPUs, GPUs, and NoCs. More than 19 billion chips containing CPU IP shipped during 2015. Despite slowing growth in the smartphone and tablet markets, CPU-IP shipments surged 23% in 2015, compared with 16% in 2014. An increase in the number of CPU-IP chips per smartphone boosted these shipments. We expect CPU IP to maintain a 12% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) through 2019 as the mobile market continues to mature and microcontroller growth slows.
The slowdown in smartphone shipments and decline in tablet sales negatively affected most GPU-IP vendors in 2015. After growing 23% in 2014, the number of chips using GPU IP rose just 6% in 2015, reaching 1.29 billion units. These numbers exclude chips using in-house GPU designs, such as Qualcomm’s and Nvidia’s. The growth rate for GPU-IP shipments lags that of CPU IP as the cycle of replacing basic phones with smartphones nears its conclusion.
Cellular handsets continue to be the highest-volume market for CPU and GPU IP. A single handset may have separate CPUs for the cellular baseband, application subsystem, and peripheral functions such as Bluetooth, GPS, Wi-Fi, touchscreen, and power management. Other important IP markets include chips for digital TVs, Blu-ray players, tablet computers, and set-top boxes; processors for personal media players; processors for home networking gear such as broadband gateways and Wi-Fi routers; storage controllers for hard drives and flash-memory drives; and processors for communications infrastructure and data-center servers.
Because of their growing complexity, most of these systems use ever more and faster CPUs. Except where performance concerns outweigh those of power, cost, and size, these CPUs are integrated into a larger-scale chip. Chip designers face a make-versus-buy decision for CPUs; most choose to buy (license) an IP core and focus their efforts on combining IP blocks, peripherals, and custom logic into a design that’s ideal for their end application.
This report covers an emerging IP type: network-on-a-chip. NoCs address the problem of increasing complexity in modern SoCs, providing an automated method of linking all the cores together. Unlike CPU and GPU cores, NoC IP must be heavily customized for each SoC, requiring a more tools-based approach. Compared with designing interconnects by hand, this approach reduces design time and helps optimize power.
ARM is by far the leading CPU-IP supplier, having a 79% share in 2015. Although its CPU cores serve in nearly every handset, its fastest-growing product line is Cortex-M for microcontrollers. ARM’s designs range from low-end CPUs such as Cortex-M0+ to high-performance superscalar designs such as the 64-bit Cortex-A72. Its Mali, the best-selling GPU IP, is particularly popular in low-cost smartphones.
Imagination Technologies has been supplying GPU IP since the 1990s, and it remains the leader in high-performance graphics units. Its Series7 GPU delivers industry-leading performance in Apple’s iPad Pro. Vivante, a startup with area-efficient GPUs, lost its leading customer when Marvell exited the smartphone market; it recently agreed to be acquired by VeriSilicon.
Synopsys has expanded its DesignWare library to include configurable ARC cores and complete subsystems, such as SoundWave for audio. In 2015, the company added new DSP capabilities to its ARC lineup. Including its considerable success in flash controllers, ARC appeared in 1.85 billion chips in 2015, ranking second in CPU-IP units.
After acquiring MIPS in 2013, Imagination completely refreshed its CPU lineup. The company’s new 64-bit P6600 offers a more area-efficient alternative to Cortex-A72 at the high end of the market, and its midrange I6400 has a unique multithreading capability that boosts performance.
Taking a different tack, Cadence provides an innovative customizable processor architecture called Xtensa, as well as preconfigured designs. The former Tensilica architecture competes for designs requiring a CPU, high-performance DSP, audio processor, video engine, or baseband-processing DSP. In 2015, Xtensa posted the highest growth rate among the four major CPU-IP architectures.
A number of smaller CPU-IP vendors — such as Andes, Beyond Semiconductor, and Cortus — offer alternatives to customers for whom compatibility with a more well-known instruction set is less important than small die size and low licensing fees. These cores are often deeply embedded in wireless chips, networking subsystems, and IoT devices. Combined, these vendors saw 2015 shipments of more than 600 million chips using their IP.
Sonics is the largest independent developer of NoC IP, offering the broadest range of NoCs, including subsidiary products for memory control and power management. Arteris complements its basic NoC features with support for fault-tolerant networks and a timing-closure tool. NetSpeed focuses on automating the entire NoC process, and it is the only one of these three to enable cache coherence. ARM’s connectivity IP is widely used for clusters of CPUs, but the company lacks a comprehensive and automated solution, leaving the door open for independent NoC vendors.
Different designers emphasize different parameters for the IP they use, such as interfaces, available I/O bandwidth, power consumption, die area, performance, instruction-set compatibility, and roadmap. Therefore, selecting the right IP is a complex and difficult task. This report details each vendor’s products, strategy, and market position, with a focus on high-performance CPU, GPU, and NoC IP.