The Age of Custom Chips

27-03-2021 | By Sam Brown

With Qualcomm purchasing NUVIA for its processor capabilities a new trend is starting to show. Will the future of electronics be entirely in custom hardware?

Qualcomm Purchases NUVIA, and Apples M1 Custom SoC

Recently, Qualcomm announced the successful purchase of NUVIA, a company that specialises in the design of custom ARM-based CPUs for use in various applications including high-end computing and server applications. This purchase of NUVIA, for a total of $1.4 billion, shows that Qualcomm is looking to include high-end integrated CPU designs into its portfolio, and the possibility of creating combined 5G SoC designs. 

However, the purchase of NUVIA by Qualcomm is not too dissimilar to Apple when it decided to drop Intel in favour of its own in-house custom SoC. Apple’s ability to create its own processor allows it to take full advantage of the processor (with regards to OS design) and steer the hardware towards Apple’s hardware goals. 

Is the electronics industry moving towards a totally custom future? It sure seems that way!

How Electronics has Evolved

Before we can see why the industry is going back to its origins we first need to understand how components have changed with time, and why. The first electronics products were designed and built using discrete components as integrated components did not exist. This resulted in large, bulky designs that could be easily repaired and upgraded. However, their functionality was limited, but the engineer could tailor the design to their exact requirements.

The integrated circuit's introduction allowed large semiconductor foundries to take commonly used circuit configurations (such as op-amps) and put them onto small pieces of silicon. Such components further reduced the size of electronics and saw a dramatic increase in the use of electronics. This increase would further be seen with the introduction of the microprocessor which brought about computers' creation. While computers manufactured by different companies would be put together differently, many would use the same underlying components. As such, the capabilities of different computers came from a combination of software and attached hardware. 

While integrated circuits allow for designs to be significantly reduced in size, the use of generic building blocks (such as glue logic) and processors designed by two or three major companies still limit modern electronics' capabilities. As such, the introduction of FPGAs allowed high-end electronics (such as network controllers) to effectively create custom hardware which allowed engineers to go back to the basics of circuitry (albeit entirely digital).

The Future is in Custom Silicon

For all the power that FPGAs offer, they are still limited in capabilities. For one, these devices are mostly digital with pre-defined blocks. This means that they cannot reduce the size of a design to its true minimum (i.e. be as small as possible in silicon).

However, many companies are now turning to create their own silicon devices from scratch. Designing a processor from scratch is fairly pointless in a world where architectures such as x64 and ARM are so well supported with rich libraries, but custom tuning a design to make the most of such designs is far from pointless. Furthermore, being able to design a custom circuit in silicon not only allows engineers to design logical units, but also allows for the designing of analogue circuits and components. 

As a result, an engineer can create a design from the very fundamentals including careful signal conditioning, transistor sizing, and signal transmission speeds. Such ability will allow for designs to be made highly efficient including size, thermally, and energy efficiency. 

Companies are already getting involved in the semiconductor industry with Apple, Qualcomm, and the Raspberry Pi Foundation being just a few. The Apple M1, for example, allows Apple to create a custom processor that not only runs their OS perfectly, but also allows for the addition of hardware that can accelerate OS-specific tasks such as AI. The Raspberry Pi Foundation has used custom silicon to create a Raspberry Pi microcontroller. Qualcomm will most likely combine NUVIA tech with their mobile capabilities to create high-end 5G devices.

Of course, the best part about the gradual introduction of custom semiconductors is that they may be available to most designers in the future. Just like how PCBs moved from being highly specialised to becoming cheaper than water, custom semiconductor foundries may explore technologies that allow them to create any custom design without needing expensive setup costs. From there, any customer could submit a request for 10 prototypes, and received them within a few weeks at a fraction of the cost of a custom ASIC.

Some may wonder if such technology is possible, the answer is a clear yes, and some have already made fully functional integrated circuits at home. While these circuits are somewhat similar to 1970s technology, it should be noted that silicon technology from the early 1990s is very capable, and can easily allow for fully customised mixed-signal circuits that eliminate most components on a PCB (i.e. resistors, capacitors, transistors, and power handling).

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By Sam Brown