Arasan Chip Systems: Delivering on a Promise...

Date:   Friday , February 01, 2008

“We have licensed multiple IP Cores from Arasan and have been impressed with the quality of the IP and the support structure that facilitates the internalization and integration of the IP into our chips. Their professional approach and the expertise and know how that they bring along makes all the difference,” says Mohamed Ben-Romdhane, Vice President of Engineering at Newport Media. He rounds off his observations on having been an Arasan customer with a statement that closely resembles Arasan’s ‘the bus stops here’ tagline: “We got on the bus with Arasan.”

Coming to market with a unique professional approach, Arasan Chip Systems is a leading provider of reusable Intellectual Property (IP) solutions focused on mobile and portable multimedia standards, connectivity and bus interfaces for the electronic design community. In today’s design environment, IP has become key to the control and transfer of data between the key components within an electronic device. Whether it is the processor talking to storage memory, the graphics card talking to the display, or a camera connecting to the processor, it is made possible only through these interfaces and controllers. In addition to its products comprising IP cores, Verification IP, hardware platforms, and software stacks/drivers, Arasan also provides comprehensive and professional design services, featuring consulting, front-end design, driver and firmware development as well as customization and integration services.

Looking at its offerings, one would assume that developing IP cores—controllers and bus interfaces at that—is an immensely challenging job. However, in digging a little deeper, it seems that anyone with decent engineering skills and a fair amount of experience can develop the IP cores his company makes. Various industry bodies, e.g. IEEE or USB-IF, publish detailed specifications for the standards based protocols on which the IP cores are developed; and in the spirit of what Silicon Valley was built upon, any engineer with a laptop and a garage can develop the IP. Like the HP of old starting in their garage, starting an IP company seems like it would be a great opportunity for any good engineer. Not entirely, says Ganesan, President of Arasan Chip Systems. He adds that the challenge is not in developing an IP core, but in providing designers a “Total IP Solution”. It goes beyond just giving designers some IP.

So….What then is the point of having a cover story on a company which employs about 150 people worldwide and is profitable? Is it as easy as it may seem? More so, why aren’t there more IP companies around today? The answer, or part of it, lies hidden in the questions.

In Commonality Lies the Difference

Let us look at the competitive landscape: Synopsys, ARM, and Mentor Graphics—all big names in the industry with years of experience and reputation behind them. So, if IP products, as already specified, are standards based protocols, what makes Arasan Chip Systems different and their products better? There has to be something for them to stand up to the gorillas in the market, compete and emerge profitable. Come to think that Arasan has over 300 customers globally, including marquee names like Intel, Texas Instruments, Infineon, NXP, Sony and Samsung to name a few, they must be doing something right. You realize that as a company they have achieved significant momentum in this industry and seem to be picking up speed.

There isn’t any magic formula that has helped the company reach this pedestal. Rather, as mentioned previously, Arasan Chip Systems has focused on providing a “Total IP Solution” and not just an IP core. Focus and dedication to the needs of their customers and selecting key technologies like SDIO and the portable multi-media markets have been instrumental to their success. Being first to market, on a consistent basis, has not hurt either. Being a small and flexible company, Arasan Chip Systems has been able to take risks and move quickly to develop key technologies for the market. In the last five years, the company has been the first among competitors to launch key industry IP solutions such as SD/SDIO, MMC 4.x, CE-ATA and MIPI to name only a few. Key staples such as USB, 10/100/1000 Ethernet and PCIe complete their portfolio.

First to Know...

In the case of the IP core business, being active in the standards bodies and associations ensures a complete understanding of the protocols and the market. It is essential to choose which area to focus on. Industry bodies exist for all domains and they regularly publish specification for system development. A company will only succeed if it manages to foresee products that could take the market by storm or that could spell disaster for its builders. Arasan Chip Systems direct involvement in these associations and standards bodies has allowed them to gain first hand insight into the problems of customers and help define the solutions not just build by specification. The company has had a long relationship with several organization – e.g. MIPI association, SD Association, MMC, USB-IF, PCI-SIG, UNH-IOL.

First to Design...

Being the first to know has also afforded Arasan Chip Systems the advantage of being the first to design key Intellectual Property that other companies may not have access to. If a company was to launch its IP products after several other IP cores had already been out in the market, it would have lost a big part of the prospective market opportunity. Besides, the product released first would already have a considerable reputation based on feedback from customers; if the product is good, the players coming in later have little market left to them.

First to Market...

Most critical to the IP developers and their customers is in helping their customer be the first to get to market. Here lies the value the IP providers bring to their customers and the market place. Arasan, being the first to know and first to design, has allowed them to help their customers be the first to go to market. And we know how critical it is to be the first to market in today’s competitive environment.

Here too, Arasan has come up trumps. As an example, the past several years, the company has focused on the removable flash memory market. Today, says Ganesan, President of Arasan Chip Systems, it owns the largest market share in Secure Digital cards (SD cards). With the same focus and dedication, Arasan Chip Systems in now focused on the portable mobile multi-media market. Being actively involved in the MIPI (Mobile Industry Processor Interface) Association, they have already engaged with tier 1 customers on this new emerging specification targeted for the mobile market. Protocols such as DSI- display serial interface, CSI- camera serial interface, SLIMbus- serial low-power inter-chip media bus, UniPro- unified protocol, and D-PHY- physical layer have been developed and are readily available, reflecting Arasan’s ability to quickly provide solutions to their customers.

The “Total IP Solution”

The chief differentiator for Arasan however lies in providing a completely flexible standards based IP solution in the portable multimedia and connectivity market that is easily customizable and integratable to its customers’ SoC system.

“Our goal is to provide fastest path from IP to SoC (Time to Market), seamless integration (Optimal System Solution) and enjoyable design experience (Professional Support),” says Ganesan. “We are here to help our customers from concept to silicon offering all the tools, support, knowledge and service to achieve their goal.”

For Arasan it is not about providing IP cores but rather, they focus on providing a “Total IP Solution”. “Customers today expect more from their partners,” says Kevin Yee, Vice President of Marketing. “Our customers are expecting a total solution and expecting us to help them get to market fast. And we aim to deliver.”

As mentioned earlier, a good engineer with a laptop and a garage can provide IP, that’s not a solution. Providing a “Total IP Solution” guarantees success. It is about providing all the tools and support required to go from concept to silicon. It’s about providing everything around the IP like the Verification IP, software stacks/drivers, hardware development kits and professional design services. When a prospective customer enquires about an IP product, the personnel at Arasan don’t just take the order and hand over some source code. They adopt a top-down design approach to achieve the customer’s system-on-chip (SoC) design goals. The entire process is broken up into several steps.

The consulting stage

is concerned with understanding what the customer is building, analyzing his SoC project and then recommending IP blocks required for the system. Key to this process is Arasan’s domain expertise in the markets. Because of this expertise, they are able to help their customers architect the SoC system and have the device do what is intended rather than what is asked for. This is done with a view so as to define the customer’s products better, based on the markets it wishes to address and ensure a success development. What you want and what you ask for are not always the same. This clarifies any discrepancies.

Next comes the development stage

, where Arasan engineers customize the IP per the design requirements. This requires intimate discussions with customers to understand the smallest of details for the system. It is here that a native interface to the processor or chipset is realized, unlike some IP companies who use wrappers or gaskets that make the design larger and slower. New features and/or functions may be added to differentiate the product. It is here that Arasan Chip Systems can help their customers add their own personality to the IP.

Thereafter, in the integration stage

, the customer can now take their design and integrate it with the rest of their system. With the additional tools that Arasan provides such as a Verification IP, designers are able to test and validate their complete system quickly and efficiently, minimizing their development time. In addition, the availability of software components like drivers and stacks that Arasan can provide helps to expedite the bring up of the product during prototyping.

The last stage constitutes design realization

, whereby Arasan works with the customer to put everything together and ensure that the system delivers predictable results.

“We are in constant communications throughout the design and development stages with our customers. We tend to act more as an extension to their engineering team than a separate company,” says Prakash Kamath, VP of Engineering at Arasan. To ensure optimum value to customers, the design team is made up of vertical specialists with domain specific knowledge in consumer electronics, networking and wireless technologies. In addition, the company has a team of implementation specialists who ensure personalized attention and offer services encompassing all stages of the design flow.

The Design Experience –Exceptional Support

Typically, each customer is assigned a support engineer for each IP product for the entire engagement process, which may stretch from three to six months. Therefore, a customer could have upwards of three or four support engineers at his disposal at any given time assuming he were needing to integrate several pieces of IP into his system.

“Arasan’s ability to provide a complete solution from design services for customizing the IP, firmware and Linux stack is remarkable,” says Bob Uvacek, director of Design Engineering for SoC Design at Toshiba in praise of the company’s services.

At this juncture, it is important to mention that Arasan is different from other IP companies or service companies for that matter. While most other IP companies focus on the IP and services companies focus on design services, Arasan focuses on the total solution to the customer. That means, if you need the VIP they have it, if you need some software, they can do it and if you need a hardware development platform, they can do that also. It’s about helping the customer be successful.

What’s the Next Hot Thing?

Arasan has had a focused presence in the USB market and for the past ten years, and now in the removable memory market. But the focus area was not so clear in the beginning. Initially, the company was just looking for ‘a product to develop’. How then did they zero down on USB?

“USB was being promoted by Intel,” reminisces Ganesan. Intel, therefore, constituted the lion share of the market for USB devices. Though clear now in hind site, at the time it was not so clear if the market was interested in USB based products that could easily be connected to a personal computer (PC). Seeing the writing on the wall, Arasan Chip Systems leapt on to the bus and released its first IP core, the USB 1.1 device in 1996. Thereafter, it has consistently released follow on products such as USB 2.0, PCI, PCI Express et al, often being one of the first out of the door.

For some years, the USB vertical market returned handsome figures. But as the economy started floundering with the dotcom bust, PC growth too started stagnating. People were no longer buying expensive computers at the earlier rate and the market for USBs slowed—Arasan’s growth engine till then.

It was essential to decipher a new area of growth. The choice could have been tricky, but to Arasan’s forte, it chose the mobile market as its target. “Despite the economy going down, we realized that people would continue to buy PDAs, mobile phones and multimedia devices. It opened up a huge market for us,” reasons Ganesan in retrospect. Arasan picked up specs from the SD Card Association (an apex body constituting Panasonic, Sandisk and Matsushita) and entered the SD card market. It brought out the SDIO as one of the early IP products in the category. The SDIO enables add-on cards, and once it went into the mobiles phones and started being used as an internal bus, it opened up a huge market for Arasan.

Also, while early adoption of the SD card and SDIO cards were only used in PDAs, they soon migrated to all portable systems like smart phones and gaming systems; that meant access to a larger market. Even basic cell phones started having Bluetooth and Wireless LAN and the SD standard became necessary for the cell phone processor to interact with these applications. That meant prospective market now equaled the global cell phone market, almost.

Not surprisingly Arasan has over 150 licensees for SD technology. The business for them has grown over six fold since 2003, inform Arasan executives. In fact, as mentioned earlier, the company has made the first release of a majority of IP products in SD cards in the last five years.

This has been possible since a number of Arasan employees are members of the major industry bodies. They participate in and contribute to the formulation of various standards. Owing to the knowledge such discussions bring to the table, designing of an IP product in Arasan begins two to three years prior to the release of industry standards. The company informs the industry body of problems in the process and the standards are adjusted accordingly. So when the standards are finally released, Arasan’s IP product is ready. Customers are now able to capitalize on the investments and efforts made by Arasan Chip Systems. These IP solutions, when obtained by the customer, give them a jumpstart into the market. The customer reaps the benefits of the many years invested by Arasan.

Hearing the Customer

With regards to the question of finalizing the complete solutions, we ask whether customer engagements and reflecting on the customer’s pain points help identify them in certain cases. “To a great extent they do,” says Rich Timpa, Vice President of Sales, “but we can’t depend on the customer for all the answers. Instead we have to anticipate their needs and guide many of our customers to the solution.” This is because the team at Arasan, many times have access to the standards long before customers do and are in a better position to advise the customer on what best to adopt. But customer engagements do help in gauging emerging trends, which play a decisive role in choosing which product to build and which not to.

For example, Arasan gave the AGP standard a miss in 1999 and chose to focus on USB 2.0 instead. USB 2.0 went on to become very successful. Again, only recently, it chose the MIPI standard over Qualcomm’s MDDI standard. Needless to say, MIPI has great momentum and is being adopted at alarming rates throughout the world. In fact, the largest microprocessor manufacturer and the leading supplier of chipsets to cell phone companies are licensees of Arasan’s MIPI based products.

Taking the Risk?

The IP business is about taking risks. Sometimes risk sounds like a bad thing, but according to Ganesan, managed risks are a necessary part of the business. It is about making investments in the next generation technologies and making it available to the market as soon as possible. By Arasan taking the initial risk, it minimizes the risk their customer will have to take in developing their end product. And with risk also comes reward. Because of the risk that Arasan Chip Systems has made, they have been able to contribute to the success of many companies, building a reputation in the industry of the highest quality solution, unprecedented support and a unique personal touch. Reputation is also one of the keys to success in the IP business- Customers need to feel secure in knowing that the technology they have licensed will be maintained and supported for so long as they choose to use it.

Having been in the business all these years has made the company realize that customers often want to build and develop their on IP that is strategically important to them. They are also looking for a second set of eyes to validate what they have developed, in terms of testing their product. For such cases, Arasan has developed Verification IP (VIP) whereby it licenses test environments to the customers. Though VIPs have always been a significant piece to the whole solution, only recently have they decided to offer this as a stand alone product.

From the time of inception of Arasan, technology has evolved a lot. There has been a constant effort to reduce the pin count while power consumption and speed have become big issues. The industry has moved from 12 mpbs in USB 1.1 to 4.5 gbps in USB 3.0 and from 32 pins in PCI 1.1 to a serial console in PCI Express. Going ahead, Ganesan reckons the analog IP market will prove to be big. Arasan has taken the first step in this direction with the launch of the Worlds First MIPI D-PHY IP. His company must build more products and address more standards, especially in the analog IP market since that alone leads to a ‘Total IP Solution’ one of Arasan’s objectives. This must be done without any compromise on quality, note analysts.