ARMs Race: Licensing vs. Manufacturing In Mobile


Last week, we paid a visit to ARM's headquarters in Cambridge, England and sat down with the company for multiple deep dives into its structure, processor architecture, and the future of its product design. The semiconductor market for mobile and hand-held devices has changed dramatically in the past six years and ARM has had to evolve along side it. This is the first in a series of articles designed to profile different aspects of the company and its competition with Intel.


ARM's Licensing and Design Model

Most readers are aware that ARM has a very different business model than Intel. Specifically, ARM licenses a wide range of technologies in a vast number of markets. The majority of ARM's customers license specific cores -- a Cortex-A9 for one SoC, a Cortex-A15 for another, etc. The company's license model is extremely flexible -- companies can license the ARM architecture without buying a specific implementation of a chip (Qualcomm, X-Gene, others follow this route). Manufacturers can opt to license a specific core for one implementation, buy access to a chip for a period of time, or can subscribe to everything ARM has, with no need to hack out a new license for each and every product.

ARM's IP focus allows it to dedicate all its resources to building a great design rather than committing to any single process node, customer, or foundry. Architectural design and implementation is done very much in partnership with both foundries (TSMC, GlobalFoundries) and licensees like Samsung or Qualcomm. This has only grown more important in recent years. GlobalFoundries made the decision to deploy gate-first manufacturing technology at 28nm, while TSMC went with gate-last technology and multiple types of 28nm, from conventional polysilicon to high-k metal gate. ARM's goal is to create the necessary IP to enable as many manufacturing technologies as is possible.

This flexibility is one of ARM's major assets. You can build an ARM processor at multiple foundries on multiple nodes and the company works to keep architectures up-to-date. The first Cortex-A9 processor shipped on 65nm but has been ported to 28nm by at least one SoC vendor, RockChip. Comments ARM made to us in Cambridge hint that we may see 20nm variations of the processor as well.

Keep in mind that while a handful of companies command a great deal of attention from the media for aggressively pushing the semiconductor envelope, they account for less than half of the total chips sold in any given year. TSMC still earns hundreds of millions of dollars yearly on process nodes that debuted ten years ago. ARM's business model is designed to cater to companies like Samsung, Nvidia, and Qualcomm with fast refresh cycles and leading-edge node adoption, while also fitting the needs of firms with 5-7 year refresh cycles. If you're a company that built an ARM11 core in 2006 and you're eyeing a Cortex-A5 as a major upgrade this year, ARM has cores to fit your needs.

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