The global ASIC market is experiencing a renaissance. According to Takeo Kobayashi, recently appointed Senior Director of Business Development at Socionext Europe, Socionext is targeting precisely this market and explains to Markt & Technik where he sees the opportunities for success for Socionext.
Markt & Technik: ASICs were considered a discontinued model for a long time, why are customized SoCs experiencing a renaissance?
Takeo Kobayashi: Applications in the automotive segment, in 5G mobile networks and in factory automation require significantly higher processing performance, a requirement that cannot be met by software alone. Consequently, some kind of hardware extension is required. But approaches based on existing ASSPs, in turn, often fail to meet requirements in terms of power consumption, integration density and cost optimization. Accordingly, for applications subject to such constraints, a custom SoC approach is the only realistic alternative. This also applies with regard to product differentiation, which becomes possible with these ICs.
What are the main markets for your Custom SoCs?
Socionext addresses four segments: Automotive, 5G, Data Centers and Factory Automation. As stated earlier, in all of these sales markets, the need for additional processing power is increasing rapidly. Examples of this include applications such as autonomous driving and the associated shift towards domain and zone architectures with high-performance computing units, the continued significant increase in Internet bandwidth, or the introduction of artificial intelligence. For most of these new application areas, off-the-shelf components are not available at all - plus the already mentioned advantages that a custom SoC approach enables in terms of integration density, power consumption, cost optimization as well as differentiation on the market.
Are there regional differences in the acceptance of custom SoCs?
We already see strong growth in demand for custom SoCs in North America and China, but this business is only just beginning in Europe. We are increasing our focus on the EU business, in close consultation with our headquarters in Japan. This is one of the main reasons for my new role here at Socionext Europe.
Are the custom SoCs predominantly digital or more mixed-signal designs?
At the leading-edge of technology, which is a major focus for Socionext, digital content dominates. However, the ability to integrate high-performance analogue functionality in such designs is also extremely important. In certain applications, such as 5G, the mixed-signal aspects of the design such as advanced ADC/DAC or SERDES IP can be the key factor to enabling optimized solutions.
What are the process technologies, in which most Custom SoCs are produced?
For our current fiscal year, 28-nm structures are the most common process node, at least in terms of volumes. This process technology accounts for about one third of total volume. At the same time, we are seeing strong growth in newer technologies, especially 7 nm. In addition, however, there is still considerable business with older technologies, i.e., above 40 nm. This is related to our involvement in areas such as automotive and industrial because product life cycles are typically long.
What are the typical NRE costs for a Custom SoC, which Socionext develops and what are the minimum of quantities to justify this investment?
This is a question that cannot be answered, because Socionext supports a wide variety of applications and uses a wide variety of process technologies, so there is no typical value for the NRE cost. The NRE costs also depend on how much of the SoC design is done by Socionext, this point can even override basic aspects in the NRE costs such as mask costs. The same is correspondingly true for the minimum production volume, again there is no clear answer. In other words, whether the cost of the project is justified varies from case to case and from application to application, it depends on the exact business case.
A lot of companies left the Custom SoC business. Who is left and how does Socionext position itself?
Many companies which offered ASICs/custom SoCs want to or have withdrawn from the market, but traditional IDMs are active with certain major customers. There are also fabless ASIC vendors as well as ASSP companies that can offer custom versions if the business case is there. This means that the competitive landscape remains complex and application dependent.
Socionext is certainly distinguished by the fact that we are fully committed to the custom SoC market, this area is the most important foundation for our business moving forward. In addition, we can cover the full range, from access to leading-edge technologies and IP, to design services and support for the entire product lifecycle - this certainly sets us apart from our competitors. And this is clearly reflected in our position as the number 2 Logic ASIC supplier in the global market.
Can you be a little more specific about the advantages of Socionext?
As one of the world's leading suppliers of custom SoCs and as a fabless company, we can select the optimal silicon process technology. We support our customers throughout the entire design cycle, from system architecture definition to chip implementation, for the full range of process technologies.
We also have specific expertise, enabling our customers to develop complex, innovative SoCs for a range of applications, be it AI-based telematics, factory automation, automotive and video solutions with up to 8K resolution.
But perhaps the most obvious differentiator is that, unlike many other fabless ASIC providers, we take responsibility for the entire supply chain and product lifecycle. We can do this because, based on our own history and as a previous IDM, we have gained extensive experience in ensuring relevant quality levels for demanding applications such as automotive.
FPGA manufacturers are no competitors?
FPGAs must necessarily cover the widest possible range of applications. The possibilities for optimization to a specific target area are limited. Their advantages, such as lower upfront costs, flexibility and shorter development times are recognized, but an FPGA cannot compete with an optimized custom SoC in points such as performance, integration density and cost optimization. However, these are often exactly the key factors that are considered for series production.
Socionext relies on ARM cores, how do you rate RISC-V?
As a company, we support the ARM CPU architecture. This is partly due to our extensive and long-standing experience with it - another point where we differentiate ourselves from the competition, especially when the application requires complex multi-core CPU subsystems, which is often the case with the kind of projects we are involved in.
RISC-V is an interesting option for certain applications and clearly has appeal for some customers due to its open source licensing structure. We can support RISC-V integration if that is what the customer wants, but RISC-V is not an alternative to ARM in our view in the vast majority of applications that we address.
Socionext also develops processor IPs itself?
Yes, the decision to develop in-house or buy from third-party vendors depends on our internal expertise and where we can add value. Example: We offer our own IP in areas such as video coding, image processing, and graphics because we have extensive experience in these application areas from our own ASSP activities. We have also developed an optimized AI accelerator for very low power applications.
On the other hand, we have developed an SoC with 24 64-bit ARM cores that is used in many applications such as media servers, streaming, networking, and image/video processing. This includes products such as the M820 Video Transcoder/Encoder PCI board, which achieves the lowest latency on the market.
What is your strategy going forward?
We will continue to invest in SoC design methodology, IPs, packaging, test and manufacturing techniques based on state-of-the-art processes and best-in-class manufacturing partners. This is because we not only want to maintain our position as one of the leading custom solution providers by continuously developing our capabilities through new technologies based on a differentiated IP portfolio and our design support and methodology. We aim to expand our position in the overall SoC market by growing our market share in those market segments where our strengths, such as our application expertise in areas like Imaging & Video, are best leveraged. This means, in particular, that we will increase our technology base to address new applications with high potential. Because I'm sure of one thing: our customers will be much more interested in design services in the coming years.