Google Looks Towards Custom SoCs

02-04-2021 | By Robin Mitchell

Recently, Google hired Intel veteran employee as the head of a new custom chip division. Why are companies turning to SoCs, who was hired, and what does this mean about custom silicon?

Why are companies turning to SoCs?

The electronics industry is always undergoing change. Each year sees new components, new designs, and new technologies that continue to push the capabilities and boundaries of electronic components. The first major breakthrough in electronics came in the form of solid-state devices (i.e. transistors and diodes), and this was shortly followed by the introduction of the integrated circuit.

Now, a new revolution in the semiconductor field has started, and it is seeing companies designing their own semiconductor devices in the form of custom System on Chips, or SoC for short. SoCs are very different to the traditional method of circuit creation. In the past, semiconductor manufacturers would produce generic parts that could be used in many different configurations with different parts. The introduction of the SoC, however, puts all the major components needed for a complete system into a single package.

The development of the SoC resulted in the creation of incredibly small computers and devices such as the Raspberry Pi and Smartphone. However, the first SoCs were still designed and manufactured by dedicated semiconductor companies. Now, large corporations such as Apple and Google are looking towards creating their own in-house custom SoCs instead of using off-the-shelf designs.

While designing a SoC is a complex and involved tasks, it allows a company to produce a SoC that is specifically tailored to their needs. Therefore, the resulting device is often cheaper, smaller, and more efficient. The use of a custom SoC also allows for designers to tailor their software systems perfectly to their own hardware resulting in ultrafast execution of code. 

Google Hires Veteran Intel Employee

Recently, it was reported that Google has hired a veteran Intel employee, Uri Frank, and has given him the lead in Googles latest custom SoC division. According to his Linkedin profile, Uri rose the ranks of Intel with the first stated position being Director of Engineering from 2011 to 2014 (Uri has worked before this point, but there are no specifics of roles). This position included leading the development of 14nm Apollo Lake with features including in Celeron and Pentium processors. 

During this time, Uri Frank also led a team of 300 for SoC development. His last position in Intel was Corporate Vice President before being given Vice President of engineering at Google in March 2021. According to Google, his new position will see Uri Frank led custom SoC development in Israel.

It should be noted that this is not the first time Google has developed its own silicon; back in 2015 Google developed TensorFlow chips to accelerate tensor-based AI algorithms. Google also developed video processing chips in 2018, and also developed an open-source chip with enhanced security in 2019. However, unlike Apple, Google has never developed a custom SoC, but this mainly comes from the fact that Google is mostly a software service provider who utilises hardware (Google clearly owns untold amounts of servers, data centres, and processors, but does not develop that hardware).

What does this mean for custom silicon?

To start, the development of custom silicon devices will undoubtedly see a shift in the semiconductor industry. Companies that both design and manufacture semiconductors will begin to split into two separate entities. Such a split is advantageous as it allows each new company to focus on its specialities without worrying about the other.

For example, AMD spun off its manufacturing business from its CPU designing business (making AMD a fabless company). This has allowed AMD to simply focus on designing CPUs, and leaving established businesses such as TSMC to focus on manufacturing chips. Intel is an example of a company that refuses to split, and this has resulted in Intel being set back a number of years due to problems in its manufacturing division.

The usage of custom silicon could also see semiconductor manufactures try to identify methods for speeding up the production of devices. Typically, a device can take as much as 6 months from start to finish, but if more companies are looking to get custom devices made, semiconductor manufacturers may want to explore at fast turnaround methods. Such technology could also help open up the world of custom devices to even small businesses.

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By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.