Scalability in the ARM Business Model
For years, ARM has delivered scalability by licensing processor cores and graphics IP to numerous semiconductor companies. They in turn integrate additional IP to create System on Chips (SOCs) to address their target markets. Since the semiconductor companies can include different IP for different markets, they can easily scale across multiple segments. They can also target different performance points further enhancing the scalability.
Furthermore, ARM has created multiple processor cores based on the same instruction set but optimized for different performance levels and power consumption. The benefit of this has been the software support that has developed around the ARM ecosystem which enables reuse across multiple products. This not only increases efficiency for the semiconductor companies, but now their customers achieve a commonality in software support. Thus today, products like the ARM Cortex-A8 and Cortex-A9 processors are found in markets such as mobile handsets, tablets, digital TVs, set-top boxes, network infrastructure, printers, and medical equipment.
Another level of scalability is achieved by the OEMs. In their case they might take a single SOC and support different product features to create a family of products. Features such as screen size, storage, and touch technology can significantly segment these products from one another. Wifi, 3G, 4G and LTE are all connectivity options which not only segment the products but provide different channels to market. To the OEM the benefit in software support by choosing a single SOC solution is huge. A single kernel and driver set along with application compatibility can significantly leverage an OEMs investments into multiple products. Archos is a great example of an OEM who has leveraged this model for a few generations of their products.
The Next Level of Scalability – Freescale i.MX6 Family of SOCs
Freescale first announced the i.MX6 family of ARM Cortex-A9 processor-based SOCs in January 2011. At that time they revealed single, dual, and quad core versions of the chip, and then at CES 2012 they unveiled “lite” versions in single and dual core configurations. They reiterated that all five of these versions will be pin compatible with one another. At the same time, Freescale was able to vary some of the I/O features on the chip such supporting E-Ink displays, and have versions supporting automotive and industrial. This would imply extended temperatures and/or other qualification. So what is the benefit of such a broad set of scalable features?
Benefits as an SOC provider…
From a Freescale point of view they were able to leverage the ARM Cortex-A9 core across an incredibly broad performance range by creating single, dual, and quad core versions. Thus they can now optimally address a power sipping consumer application such as eReaders (Video: i.MX6 Lite at CES 2012) with an e-Ink display to a performance demanding application such as 3D modeling in an automotive environment (Video: Freescale i.MX6 Automotive Tech at CES 2012). By including both high speed and low power I/O and memory across the family they enable their customers to utilize what is required for their application. By re-using all of the IP block, they are able to minimize the SOC design resources to provide an entire family of SOCs with fewer engineering resources.
Taking into account the software and customer support infrastructure extends the realized savings from this approach. Now there is only a single BSP required to validate and support for each of the supported operating systems. By creating a pin compatible set of SOCs across the family means a single development board or even a processor module can be used to enable customers to develop products.
Benefits as an OEM…
The i.MX6 family enables a level of scalability to OEMs that previously unachievable. Take for example the tablet market: Not only has the tablet market started to become segmented with content consumption devices vs. productivity vs. gaming, but the lines within eReaders have also blurred. But with the i.MX6 family, an OEM can easily scale their resources to address all of these. Instead of just family of products that might have the same SOC with maybe a slightly different clock frequency and then different screen, storage, etc., you can now have a single core with an E-Ink display on the eReader side, maybe a dual core for consumption and some productivity, and a full out quad core for heavy productivity and content creation as well as gaming. In addition, the broad range of I/O available on the i.MX6 family enable even further differentiation of the end product features. Now, from the same SOC family, an OEM can have significantly different level of performance, display types, and I/O in addition to the previously available display and storage sizes.
As Freescale is very strong in the embedded and automotive markets and the fact that Embedded Systems Conference is right around the corner, consider what this might mean to an embedded OEM. A single board computer manufacturer can create a single platform that can simultaneously address customers in industrial controls, medical equipment, digital signage, casino gaming and who knows what else. With the growing popularity of ARM based computing modules (Advantech Embedded Computing, Kontron, BeagleBoard.org, Gumstix, Inc., iWave, Pactron, Toradex) imagine how broadly an i.MX6 based module could be deployed. Base boards could be created to support the most environmentally and thermally challenging environments to perform demanding applications where power is not a concern. And as each application is different, the need for software reuse is even more critical than consumer applications where the volumes are traditionally higher. In essence, the scalability of the i.MX6 family enables embedded customers to achieve those types of volumes across a broad range of application with only an incremental investment in resources.
Whether it is a consumer application or a deeply embedded application, the i.MX6 family is enabling a new level of scalability in the electronics industry. Be it performance and power, display and memory types, I/O, or levels of qualification, this pin compatible family of SOCs can address them all enabling Freescale and OEMs alike to be more efficient and nimble in the highly competitive and ever changing industry we are in. Be sure to check out Freescale and the i.MX6 product family at Embedded Systems Conference in booth 1607, and let us know how the ARM ecosystem is enabling you to scale your business by visiting the ARM booth 1127 and the rest of our Partners at the show.
Jeff Chu, Mobile Computing Director at ARM, has been on the forefront of ultra mobile computing for over 10 years now. From webpads to smart displays to UMPC there has always been the criticism that it's not a real PC. Well, now with smartphones sales exceeding PCs and tablet shipments blowing by 10M on the way to 100M, the computing world has flipped and low power mobile products are the preferred way to consume content, communicate and interact with the web. To quote Victor Hugo, “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”
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