Freescale eyes ARM server play

Freescale eyes ARM server play

Peter Clarke   2/28/2013 6:20 AM EST

NUREMBERG, Germany – Freescale Semiconductor Inc. could use its recently announced Cortex-A50 series processor license from ARM to extend its digital networking activity into server computing, CEO Gregg Lowe told EE Times at the Embedded World exhibition here.
When asked in an interview by EE Times whether Freescale could use the A50 series 64-bit ARM subscription license to expand into the server market Lowe said: "Yes, I think so." Lowe added: "There is a lot happening in that space."

The Cortex-A50 series, currently being developed by ARM and partners, includes the Cortex-A57 and Cortex-A53 as a big-little combination.

Freescale announced that it had licensed the A50-series of microprocessors on a multiyear subscription basis for future versions of its i.MX applications processor and QorIQ communications processor product lines.

Freescale also has provides processors based on the PowerPC architecture licensed from IBM.

The server market has begun to fragment in recent years with the emergence of markets for microservers and more intelligence being pushed towards the network.

At the same time there is a focus on energy efficiency in large data centers that expected to perform "cloud" services for consumers who are online for most of their professional and private lives.

Gregg Lowe, CEO of Freescale (left) and Steve Wainwright, general manager EMEA for Freescale, on the booth at Embedded World.

Focus on five
Lowe said Freescale should not perceived in a similar light to European chip companies NXP Semiconductor and Infineon Technologies AG that have sold off significant parts of their businesses as part of restructuring over recent years.

Since Lowe took over the stewardship of Freescale Semiconductor Inc. 8 months ago the company has been refocused into five business units: analog and sensors; microcontrollers; automotive microcontrollers; digital networking; RF and other.

Lowe said the company was now in good shape to profit from forthcoming growth in embedded applications and the internet of things; from billions of wireless sensor leaf nodes served by physically small, ultra low power microcontrollers, through multiple layers of networking infrastructure and up to the cloud. Freescale is also able to serve that chain of information processing and connectivity in both general and automotive forms, Lowe said.

Lowe made the point that as embedded connectivity and the internet of things (IoT) grow demand for networking infrastructure and cloud data processing will also grow exponentially.
"The car is a great example of how things are progressing. It used to be a stand-alone system. Now we expect connection. For infotainment, and also things like radar activity, cars interacting with each other autonomously," said Lowe.

The five focus areas that Lowe has selected to drive Freescale into profit show a similar emphasis to processor licensor ARM at both the low-end, in terms of low-power microcontrollers for the Internet of Things, and at the high end where multiple companies are trying to break into networking and serving with ARM licenses. However, Freescale still has a commitment to the PowerPC architecture in both automotive processing and high-end networking.

"We’ve moved $25 million of R&D spending into these five areas. The percentage of R&D here was 69 percent and its now 82 percent. "I said we’d get to 90 percent in these areas by 2015 but I think we’ll do it by early 2014. In digital networking we are the market leader, we have 50 percent market share."

Lowe added that although Freescale is often perceived as a digital company it analog, sensor and RF expertise and that this is an important complement to the microcontrollers and processors it supplies.

No end of Power

When asked if Freescale’s licensing of A50-series meant that Freescale was in a process of phasing out its use of the PowerPC architecture Lowe was adamant it did not. "The Power architecture has proven itself at the high end.

In 2013 85 percent of networking introductions are going to be Power architecture." The adoption of the latest ARM license is partly a response to customer requests, Lowe added.

And in automotive microcontrollers there is a similar story. Power is the 32-bit architecture for all but a few infotainment applications and Freescale has made 15-year supply agreements based on Power, along with road-mapping for its automotive customers.

There is also the potential as multicore architectures and virtualization become more mainstream of having ARM and Power cores working together, Lowe said.

Lowe said that with regard to manufacturing Freescale was happy with its fab-lite strategy. "The general rule is that at 90-nm and higher geometries we make it in-house. At 65-nm and smaller we outsource. For the microcontroller and analog business 90-nm is close to leading-edge technology.

The percentage we outsource will grow over time."
However, when it was pointed out that increasingly large foundries will want to offer mixed-signal manufacturing capability for fabless companies to offer microcontrollers and other circuits in competition, Lowe said this was not a big threat right now.

"Analog is highly fragmented and there are many proprietary techniques and technologies. If you go to a foundry, you either have to move your process or they want you to use a standard process which involves compromise. Also analog involves 1,000s of tapeouts. The foundries don’t like it."

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