Semiconductor IP News and Trends Blog
Free Hardware and Software but not IP
Will the success of the open source movement in software and even hardware cause changes in silicon IP business models?
After posting the story on Minalogic – the French technology centered in Grenoble, I receive a note from an electronic engineer in the area. In his missive, Henri stressed the importance of a common hardware and software platform to enable the technical innovation and exchange that was the goal of clusters like Minalogic. In particular, he emphasized the need for open hardware, recommending the Open Source Hardware (OSHW) movement
The challenges in creating open hardware platforms in the chip and (to a lesser extent) the embedded board markets have been around for some time. They have also been a topic of personal interest. Dr. Gary Ray, a college friend of mine, once wrote a series of articles discussing the challenges of open hardware design starting with this one: Reproducible Research – Studies in Open Source Hardware Design
Although a few years old, the chip and embedded open source hardware tools mentioned in my overview article are still applicable – see, “Open Source Hardware and EDA tools”
Free and open source hardware-software tools have enabled innovation in the embedded space and – to a lesser extent – the world of chip design. But what about free intellectual property (IP)? Here’s where the story gets “interesting.” Giving away intellectual property is like giving away one’s gold.
“For the silicon industry, there is a tension here, because this industry deals with extremely high value Intellectual Property (IP). The silicon design itself represents the “crown jewels” for a silicon company. These designs are traded between companies for large sums, under relatively complex licensing terms. Thus, for this industry, the concept of “Free” or “Open” IP is not easy to mix with their own high value IP.”
From the silicon design industry’s viewpoint, the main obstacles are twofold, explained Burton. First, the design itself needs to be licensed in such a way as to enable “free” access. Secondly, the means by which the design is “accessed” must also be “free”. This means that both the IP and the tools must be free.
Free IP and tools have been the norm in the world of FPGA designs, although that model is changing as FPGA approach ASIC/ASSP in design complexity.
Software has long been the shining model for free IP and tools with such examples as the GNU ‘C’ compiler. In the silicon world, SystemC has come the closest to a free tool offering.
The idea of free silicon IP is nothing new. Back in 1999, Artisan (now ARM) offered free semiconductor IP design libraries to silicon developers within its large user community. The company’s reason for this free giveaway as to simplify IP integration, particularly for Artisan-based system-on-chip (SoC) designs.
The “free IP” business model meant that Artisan would forgo the typical up-front licensing fees and instead receive royalties from their foundry (then TSMC) for each chip made with its design cells. Eventually, the approach led to the collapse of many smaller cell library providers – like Aspec Technology. Larger and more successful vendors like ARM survived by making similar foundry-specific versions of their design cells.
But is free IP really “free?” Not if you take the big picture view beyond the initial IP licensing fee, reasons Kurt Shuler, VP of Marketing at Arteris. He backs up his argument – at least for the Network-on-Chip IP market space – with recent data from the semiconductor market research firm Objective Analysis. The study confirmed that the economic benefits of using NoC interconnect IP were more than 10x the license price for the IP. Further, the report claims that the benefits include a much higher ROI than internally developed or “free/bundled” interconnect IP.
The continuing success of the open source movement in software and even hardware may cause changes in the silicon IP business models. Still, the real challenge will be how to keep innovation alive when the cost for creating new designs returns no financial benefit to the IP creator.
Reference: System-on-a-Chip Integration in the Semiconductor Industry: Industry Structure and Firm Strategies, by Greg Linden and Deepak Somaya, October 20, 2000