British business Arc Cores has developed a range of configurable microprocessors. It was first to create this type of CPU and is now setting up offices in San Jose to get Silicon Valley customers to treat it as a credible player in the chip market.
Traditional microprocessors, like the Pentium, SPARC, MIPS, RISC, PowerPC, Motorola 68000 or ARM, are sold as an untouchable items to customers who want to build them into their products.
Although each family of microprocessor possesses different features and characteristics, in every case, these remain the same from the day they are bought to the day they are discarded. There is no facility to alter the instruction sets of these chips which is determined by the vendor. So often many of their features are redundant for the device in which they are being used yet companies spend millions of dollars on them.
"It's a bit like using a cannon as a fly swatter," said Arc Cores' vice president of marketing and business development, Jim Turley, who is heading up the firm's new San Jose office.
Instead this new breed of configurable CPU allows customers to alter the instruction set, adding their own features in order to give their product unique characteristics so that they stand out in the marketplace. Not only they ideal for performing application specific tasks, they are much faster than traditional CPUs too, improve time to market, they are cheaper and can be used in ‘system on a chip’ designs.
These configurable CPUs are also referred to a microprocessor intellectual property because they are software centric with no hard tangible product to see and feel. Arc Cores’ own product is a 32bit configurable, RISC microprocessor which the company claims can improve performance by a factor of 10, reduce power consumption by at least 50 per cent and cost per chip by $15. But Turley said that this concept is so novel it meets with resistance from stick in the mud chip designers.
Two US companies, Tensilica of San Jose, and Improv Systems of Massachusetts have recently joined this arena but are some way behind Arc. While Arc has around 40 customers many of whom have already incorporated their Arc based chips into product, Tensilica expects a couple of its albeit impressive customers, Zilog and Cisco Systems, to do so within the next quarter. Improv Systems is to announce its first customers soon according to President Carey Ussery.
Target applications are telecommunications, mobile communications and consumer electronics. Arc’s Turley said that its product is being well received by the high speed networking sector.
"Networking boxes have a voracious appetite for performance and we have several customers who are building just those boxes who are deliriously happy with their Arc because they can turn it into a custom network processor and that's a task that conventional microprocessor's are very ill-suited for. The average processor chip from MIPS or PowerPC was never ever designed for that sort of work so it's a poor fit," he said.
An Arc customer, Toplayer Networks, has used the Arc core to speed up packet forwarding in its Appswitch product family.
Cisco Systems is also exploring the potential for this type of processor with Tensilica's Xtensa product.
Digital camera makers are turning to these CPUs and they are also suited to use by DVD and set-top box vendors where there is increasing pressure on designers to create new or upgrade existing products as fast as possible to gain an edge over competitors.
Sierra Imaging, a digital imaging and components systems company, chose Arc’s user definable microprocessor for its next generation imaging chip the Raptor II. Sierra had sold millions of its Raptor I DSP (digital signal processing) chip to digital camera vendors including Agfa, but as the market evolves to demand even faster, higher resolution products Sierra needed to improve on the design. Using the Arc core has enabled the firm's latest chip to achieve this.
Fujitsu is busy on the DVD front, Turley said. Fujitsu is using the Arc processor in its chip that decodes MPEG2 to simplify and speed the task of converting signals from a satellite dish or cable into words and pictures on a TV, which is now shipping to consumer electronics companies.
Both Arc and Tensilica use a similar approach in their technologies with DSP cores. Improv Systems' has taken a different tack by making its Jazz Programmable System Architecture Java based.
Arc argues that its technology is more mature than its competitors but Tensilica's Bernie Rosenthal contends that his newer company's technology "takes into account many of the advances that have been made in the hardware design area and micro Architecture as well as in the compiler and software development area in the last two years". Nevertheless he respects Arc Cores as a "formidable competitor".
In view of Tensilica's customers lack of product, Rosenthal quickly pointed out that the company has completed its own test silicon to verify that the core works in 0.25 micron. He also claimed that the microprocessor has shown up to 50 times improvement in performance of some software algorithms.
Although it is first to market, Arc has found the going tough when competing in the lucrative North American market against home grown US companies. As a result the company opened an office in Silicon Valley's San Jose.
Being a UK technology pioneer has not helped the company. "That has worked against us here in the Valley. We're often confused with another microprocessor company in Cambridge with a very similar name (ARM) because again the very provincial Silicon Valley attitude is, gosh there couldn't possibly be two," said Turley.
He is now in the process of staffing up his new office which will perform a marketing role. Research and development is carried out at the company's Greater London headquarters.
While credibility in the US market has been hard to come by, funding has been "embarrassingly easy". Both Tensilica and Arc Cores have secured several million dollars between them.
"We closed about $11.5 m earlier this year and we're in the midst of doing another $15m right now which we expect to finish in about a month's time," he said. The first round funding largely came from European and Asian investment banks while the second round is being provided by "geographically varied investors" from Europe, the Far East and the US some of which are reported to be semiconductor companies that support the Arc approach.
In July Tensilica closed its third round of funding, raising $20 million from a combination of high technology manufacturing companies, venture capital firms and private investors bringing its capitalisation since founding in 1997 to $33 million.
According to Rosenthal this money is earmarked for general expansion but particularly bolster its resources in sales and marketing along with reseArch and development. Over the next two years the company plans to double its 50 strong engineering team, he said.
He attributes the firm's success in raising funds to its star-studded line-up of executives. "We've managed to put together a technical team of folks who have done various important pieces of this sort of work before, experts from Synopsis, MIPS, SGI, Sun, and Intel. This named technical talent enabled us to catch the attention of the financial community.
“Then they started to do their due diligence and talk to some of the larger systems companies, consumer electronics companies, router companies and they got some positive signals from potential users of this type of technology, that it could really hit the sweet spot of what they needed," he added.
Each of these companies derives its income from a one off negotiable license fee charged to customers and a royalty payment per unit shipped. Turley declined to comment on the up front fee Arc Cores charges but Tensilica is reported to charge $350,000.
Arc Cores' Turley likens the model to that used by record producers who hope to make most of their money from royalties.
"So our business is set up such that we are motivated by the same things our customers are. In other words we want our customers to be successful, if they are successful then we will be successful. If their product fails then so will we. We want to help them, we don't get paid unless they're successful and they tend to trust us and rely on us as we on them."
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