Sonics’ talks up its Network on Chip solutions

NoC’s enabling the SoC’s we use everyday…

Sonics logoThanks to a well-timed press release about a new partnership with MediaTek we recently had a chance to talk to a little known semiconductor company called Sonics Inc. This Silicon Valley based enterprise develops and licenses what they call Network on Chip (NoC) technology. Now most of you are familiar with the ongoing transition towards System on Chip (SoC) products like the chips that power our cars, cellphones, TV’s, tablets, and consoles. Sonics’ network on chip technology dubbed SonicsGN is a logical architecture and design tool set for enabling communication between IP blocks and cores from different vendors within a modern SoC. Without Sonics’ NoC fabric the heterogeneous cores on modern SoC designs couldn’t communicate with one another.

Sonics NoC Complexity

Let’s step back for a moment and examine the modern SoC design market. There are hundreds of small and large semiconductor IP vendors that offer IP blocks for any number of applications. A good example of a third part IP block in action would be AMD’s TrueAudio technology which is enabled by an IP block licensed from Tensilica. When AMD’s engineers designed their cores and IP blocks they had no reason to believe that these cores would ever need to communicate with other cores from 3rd party vendors.

So they used their own proprietary communications interface that met their design goals. But when higher level designers started adding 3rd party IP like TrueAudio or even legacy IP from inside of the company that doesn’t use the current communication standards problems cropped up like the inability of the cores to communicate. At this point you need some kind of Network on Chip infrastructure to enable communication between all of these cores and IP blocks or your chip won’t work.

Sonics NoC Demand

There are two solutions to this communication problem: have an internal team hand design a propriety NoC solution or license a NoC fabric and supporting tool sets from a company like Sonics. In our discussions with Sonics they made a pretty strong case for using their fabric over an internal solution with a story about a company that of course due to NDAs will remain unnamed.

This semiconductor design outfit had been producing new designs every 18 months prior to their involvement with Sonics. For the first design where they used Sonics’ NoC architecture and tools they were able to cut design time down to 12 months and once the design staff was completely familiar with Sonics’ tools design time was cut even further to three months. Those are some bold claims and due to the nature of Sonics’ business they’re not immediately verifiable, but it’s clear that the potential for reducing the amount of design time spent on a SoC by using Sonics’ IP and tools is significant.

Additionally, Sonics said that most NoC solutions available to companies internally are very basic and difficult to scale. Sometimes these NoC solutions need to be rebuilt from the ground up just to accommodate one more IP block or core. With Sonics’ solution you can easily slipstream additional IP blocks into a given design and then use their tool set to consider a variety of physical layouts to ensure the shortest communications pathways between performance critical blocks. This is very useful for companies for looking to reduce time to market while retaining performance and keeping power consumption under control.

Speaking of performance, Sonics’ executive team seemed very confident in the performance of their NoC fabric. According to them, not only was their solution capable of 2 GHz operation on a well-designed chip, but they hadn’t seen a performance comparable solution from anyone outside of their company in over half a decade.

Again these are big claims from a company that most people have likely never heard of. But through a complex and non-NDA breaking process of having them only mentioning the first letter of a given company’s name and their area of sales I was able to cleverly deduce that Sonics’ fabric is used in all the current generation consoles, as well as in chips from almost all the major mobile vendors, and even by those guys with a blue and white logo that spend a lot of time talking about x86 everywhere.

The only really solid number they could give me is that almost 2.5 billion chips that use their IP have been produced over their 25+ year history with that last billion or so having been added over the past two years.

Getting back to Sonics’ partnership with MediaTek the company of course couldn’t give us any examples of products because of how new this agreement is, but did say that its IP and tools will likely be used in many if not all of MediaTek’s upcoming SoC products.

Another topic that we were able to touch on in our conversation with Sonics was their involvement was the HSA foundation. If you’ll so kindly recall Sonics was an early member of the foundation whose involvement we noted along with Samsung’s introduction to the club.

HSA is an important effort for Sonics because the continued and growing use of heterogeneous cores will positively impact their NoC business and add value to the consumer facing products that rely on their IP. Now some of you might be wondering if the widespread adoption of HSA would negatively impact Sonics’ business by standardizing the way that heterogeneous cores communicate with one another removing the need for their scalable and flexible NoC fabric. According to the company this is not the case; rather the need for their NoC IP and particularly their tools will only grow as heterogeneous cores become more standardized. More to the point though, HSA only standardizes the protocol by which cores can communicate, it does not standard the implementation or method for that communication.

The time we spent talking to Sonics was enlightening and company representatives repeatedly told us that they’re hoping to have a more prominent public profile by ramping up their PR efforts from here on out. Thus while this may be the first time you’ve heard of NoC technology and Sonics it likely won’t be the last.S|A

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Thomas Ryan is a freelance technology writer and photographer from Seattle, living in Austin. You can also find his work on SemiAccurate and PCWorld. He has a BA in Geography from the University of Washington with a minor in Urban Design and Planning and specializes in geospatial data science. If you have a hardware performance question or an interesting data set Thomas has you covered.