What is an IP (Intellectual Property) core in Semiconductors?

An  Intellectual Property (IP) core in Semiconductors is a reusable unit of logic or functionality or a cell or a layout design  that is normally developed  with the  idea of  licencing to multiple vendor for  using as building blocks in  different chip designs.


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In today’s era of IC designs more and more system functionality are getting integrated into single chips  (System on Chip /SOC designs).  In these SOC designs,  these pre-designed IP  cores/blocks are becoming more and more important.  This is  because most of the  SOC designs  have a standard microprocessor and  lot of system functionality  which are standardized and hence if designed once can be re-used  across  several designs.


Refer following diagram (Reference wikipedia) and you can see that a  lot of the components  are standardized protocols and  designs – eg the  ARM bus protocols like  AHB, APB,  the  designs  like  Ethernet, SPI, USB , UART core etc.  All of these can be designed  stand alone  as IP cores/blocks and can be licenced to multiple design houses and for different designs.

IP cores are generally licensed  as either Soft IP cores or Hard IP cores.


Soft IP cores are  IP blocks generally  offered as synthesizable  RTL models. These are developed in one of the Hardware description language like SystemVerilog or VHDL.


Sometimes IP cores are also synthesized and provided as generic gate level netlist which can be then mapped to any process technologies.  This also falls under Soft IP cores.   The advantage of  Soft IP cores is that  those can be  customized in the back end Placement and Routing flow by a consumer to map to any process technologies.


Hard IP cores on the other hand are offered as  layout designs  in a layout format like GDS  which is mapped to a process technology and can be directly dropped by a consumer to the final layout of the chip.  These cores cannot be customized for different process technologies.


Generally  digital  logic  cores  are  developed and licensed as  Soft  IP cores.  eg: a DRAM controller IP,   Ethernet MAC IP,  AMBA bus procotol IPs etc.


Analog and Mixed signal logic designs for  serdes, PLLs,   ADC or DAC,  Phy layer logic for  DDR, PCIE etc   are  generally  developed and licensed as Hard IP cores.



This is a guest post by: Ramdas Mozhikunnath, Experienced ASIC Verification Engineer , 16+ years exp, Intel Alumni.