Semiconductor IP News and Trends Blog
Who Will Manufacture ARM’s IP for Kontron?
Board manufacturer Kontron’s recent announcement of a shift from Intel to ARM low-power chip adds new questions about the potential future between the two processor giants.
A new twist has been added in the Intel-ARM battle for low power and ecosystem dominance. Kontron has recently announced a shift to ARM-based IP with an as yet unspecified System-on-Chip (SoC) manufacturer. This is a significant change for a printed circuit board vendor like Kontron who has been in lock-step with Intel for many years.
There are many aspects of this change that merit attention. Let’s start with the question of where the new – or perhaps existing – ARM SoC will be manufactured. A good first guest might be who has supplied chips to Kontron in the past? That would be Intel. Maybe it will still remain within Intel’s domain. There is already a “rumor” precedence for this line of thought, namely, that Intel might make ARM chips for Apple Macs. (see, “IP Adds New Twist to Intel-Apple-ARM Triangle )
Wouldn’t it be a convenient surprised if Intel really does manufacture ARM chips? What would that do to the development of Intel’s Atom – the once and future ARM-processor replacement? (At least, that’s what Intel hopes.) Manufacturing ARM IP would require Intel to enter the “foundry for hire” business in a bigger way than in the past. This is not a new business model for the semiconductor industry, as other IDMs like Samsung have offered foundry services for some time. Still, it would put Intel in direct competition with both pure-play fabs like TSMC and IDM-foundry vendors like Globalfoundries. (see, “IDMs to hurt pure-play foundries, says report” )
One potential benefit of an Intel “for hire” fab is that it might bring manufacturing back to the US. (see “New Semiconductor Fab Comes to Oregon” )
Let’s shift from the chip to the board level question to consider interface issues. Another angle of interest deals with board interconnections. In the past, I’ve covered on-chip integration issues between SoC IP cores. Since Kontron is a board manufacture, the interface issues shift from on-chip cores to connections between PCBs and peripherals. Not surprisingly, there are differences in interfaces between Intel and ARM chipsets.
The press release from Kontron hints at these differences in the acknowledgement that “a new line of Computer-on-Modules (COM)” will be needed for the ARM single and quad-core processors. Apparently, the ARM SoCs interfaces are different enough to warrant the design of a new routing system. A classic PC (Intel) chipset has a large number of PCI-Express lands and USB ports. In comparison, an ARM chipset provides multiple UART, I2C, and SDIO ports but fewer PICe and USB interfaces. Basically, ARM SoCs were traditionally designed for the mobile device and not the PC markets.
This interface difference is noteworthy because it suggests that a number of new interface IP types will be needed by whoever manufactures the new ARM SoC for Kontron. This means that the manufacturer might be a company familiar with both ARM and Intel processors – a company like Marvel. Remember, in 2006 Intel sold off the XScale – the successor to Intel’s StrongARM venture – to Marvel. Enough said.
Kontron’s move toward ARM IP from an undisclosed manufacturer may be simply a strategic, cover-your-bases move by the board company. Or it could support the notion that the business relati