Choosing IP core – It’s not just the product, it’s the relationship

July 28, 2014, anysilicon

This is a guest post by PLDA which designs and sells intellectual property (IP) cores and prototyping tools for ASIC and FPGA

You are on a very strict schedule for your next chip. Not wanting to reinvent the wheel, you plan to go to an outside vendor for some of your silicon IP core. Your decision is – do I get my IP core from a large supplier who offers many cores covering a broad range of functionality (the supermarket) or do I go to a focused vendor who specializes in the critical piece of IP core I need (the specialty shop)? Well, it depends on the IP core.

Decision Time

When you need a particular piece of third-party IP, the factors that go into the “where to purchase” decision include the “hard” attributes of IP functionality, availability for a particular process node, performance, complexity, ease of implementation, testability, and security. Along with these attributes are others that apply specifically to vendor selection, such as track record as an IP supplier and level of service. The latter is particularly important if problems arise during IP integration. An IP supplier who has been in the business for several years and is profitable demonstrates that they are “in for the long haul” and will still be around down the road if problems develop or to help with tricky IP integration technical problems on future chips.

A small IP vendor may be your best choice if you need a specialized IP core. Since a small vendor has fewer products than a large vendor, they often are more willing to work with you to make sure their product works in your particular chip. In other words, small vendors generally provide better support and extra service to their customers. Treat your IP vendor as a member of your design team to help solve any and all problems relating to the IP from that supplier and go with one willing to accept this role.

IP Vendor Knowledge

A real test of an IP vendor’s value is what happens when you implement IP and it doesn’t work correctly. A vendor’s knowledge needs to extend beyond the actual IP that they sell, including knowledge of the various types of systems in which the IP may be embedded. Look for a vendor who has experience with several types of designs using a particular piece of IP.

An important factor beyond the particular core you want is how involved the vendor is with similar IP. For example, if you need PCI Express (PCIe) IP does the vendor also have PCI and PCI-X experience and knowledge? Experience with similar functionality in other cores indicates that the IP vendor most likely has extensive familiarity with the core functionality you need.

Parameterizable IP is another plus, allowing you to customize one core for a basic design and variations of the same IP for derivative products. As is the case with any semiconductor product, find out what else the vendor can supply beyond the basic IP. If the vendor has versions of a particular core for different silicon platforms – ASIC, FPGA and maybe even Structured ASIC – this gives you flexibility during product development (maybe on an FPGA) and then for transitioning to an ASIC for cost advantages. If your critical need is for IP to implement a communication standard, such as PCIe, then your vendor should offer IP verification with common verification IP (VIP) that you might employ, such as that offered by nSys, along with verification reports. Depending on the IP, the vendor should also have the appropriate software you’ll need to implement the IP in a system.

Reference designs from the IP vendor, particularly when you are targeting an FPGA platform for design validation or prototyping, will save you a lot of design time. A small, experienced IP vendor will generally be a good choice because they have the design experience to develop such boards with high performance characteristics and ease of use.

The bottom line is to look beyond the IP itself and see what else the vendor has to make system implementation and verification as painless as possible. IP integration is not turnkey for high-performance, critical IP – and it never will be since every chip in which the IP will reside represents a different system around it. A small, focused IP vendor is your best bet to get the core, associated hardware and software, and service you need to maximize successful IP integration.

Visit PLDA’s website for more information.