Jeff Bier’s Impulse Response—Core Values

Submitted by Jeff Bier on Wed, 08/01/2001 - 16:00

Typical CPUs used to be built with hundreds of chips, each containing a few simple logic gates. Nobody uses these logic gate chips anymore, and as IC manufacturing technology improved (and Moore's Law predicted), processors shrank in size to the point that today they occupy only a small portion of a chip.

Thus it is now possible to integrate a multitude of other elements-memories, coprocessors, algorithm accelerators, specialized peripherals-on a single chip with a DSP or MCU processor core. With the key role that digital signal processing now plays in many high-volume products, the benefits of such "system-on-chip" integration—reduced cost, size, and energy consumption—are making such designs a compelling option for many DSP applications.

Given this trend, might today's packaged DSP processors be displaced by licensable cores and ultimately go the way of the simple 7400-series logic gate chips of decades past? For some applications, at least, this seems likely.

Ten years ago there were only a few licensable DSP cores available. Today there are many, and the options continue to expand. A wide range of vendors have begun offering licensable DSP cores, from upstarts like 3DSP Corporation to established industry giants, like Philips, who are looking to build momentum behind their architectures.

Reaping the benefits of DSP cores, however, comes at a premium. Designing a highly integrated system-on-chip requires a very large investment, which puts cores beyond the reach of many system manufacturers.

Thus, for now at least, licensable DSP cores will mainly be used in very high-volume applications like cell phones. Indeed, a recent market study by Forward Concepts found that cores licensed from DSP Group made up a 20% share of the cell phone DSP chip market last year.

Even major chip vendors who traditionally relied on their own proprietary DSP architectures are considering licensable cores. Conexant, for example, recently followed IBM and Broadcom in licensing LSI Logic's ZSP400 superscalar DSP core. Given the current industry slowdown it's easy to see why Conexant decided to license a DSP core: the cost of developing an in-house core and the infrastructure required for its use (for example, software tools and documentation) is huge—typically tens of millions of dollars.

Packaged DSP processors aren't on the verge of becoming extinct—for many applications they will be the solution of choice for years to come. For the highest volume applications, however, licensable cores will play an increasingly important role.

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