Aug 19 2013

Mobile Devices Fuel System-on-a-Chip Boom

SoCs are no longer the exclusive purview of embedded systems.

For a long time, system-on-a-chip (SoC) products were considered the domain of embedded systems. Not anymore.

SoCs integrate all major components of an electronic system, such as a computer, into a single chip or package. As a general rule, integration breeds a lower bill of materials (BOMs), an ideal setup in the embedded market. SoC-driven solutions didn’t have to be fast or feature rich; they just had to be realiable and cheap.

Certainly, SoCs continue to be enormous forces in the embedded world — AMD’s latest G-Series chips are an excellent example — but major growth has only recently started to mushroom, thanks largely to the rise of tablets and smartphones, hardware platforms that deliver high degrees of computing functionality in limited amounts of physical space.

“The key factor driving SoC evolution is the need for more integrated features on silicon, driven by user experience and computing requirements,” says Charles Matar, corporate vice president of SoC development at AMD.

Cisco System’s Internet Business Solutions group drew a lot of attention when it announced that “The Internet of Things” would be fueled by 50 billion connected devices — everything from servers to refrigerators (and even wirelessly monitored cattle) — by 2020.

The level of functionality demanded by such smart devices will typically require SoCs. The technology to manufacture this near-future connectivity explosion is only just now arriving.

Behind the SoC Explosion

Today’s latest-generation CPUs showcase SoC evolution in action. Two decades ago, a CPU was exactly that: a central processor. Then designs incorporated more cache, the memory controller, the northbridge, PCI Express lanes and the graphics processor. Discrete “chipset” and LAN controller packages are still necessary, but CPUs are ostensibly SoCs, as are the main processors in smartphones and tablets.

10 billion

More devices than people are connected to the Internet today. That number will rise to more than 50 billion by 2020, thanks in part to the growing prevalence of SoC technology.

SOURCE: Cisco Systems

“Today, SoC designs must encapsulate better performance, power efficiency, form factor flexibility and total BOM or silicon cost,” says AMD’s Matar. “These requirements are attainable not only via process technology advancements and shrinking nodes but also with new technologies that are being enabled, like 3D die stacking, packaging and many other innovations.”

SoC Frees Computing from Its Shackles

SoC adoption is a trend that translates into more performance (as seen with servers), longer battery runtime (all ultraportable devices) and greater functionality in ever-smaller packages (smartphones). Often, all three of these benefits can be seen in the same device class, such as today’s leading thin-and-light notebooks.

For businesses, the chief significance is ever-increasing mobility. In the 2000s, chip integration allowed computer manufacturers to eliminate the connectivity wire. Dial-up and Ethernet cables gave way to Wi-Fi. In the 2010s, SoC integration is helping to do away with the power cable as battery life scales into delivering a full day of business productivity.

“SoC removes the shackles of computing,” says Intel Technical Adviser Saurabh Dighe. “It is taking us to a place where computing will almost disappear into your environment. It’ll be everywhere, and it’ll be assisting you in leading a better life.”