Should you make or buy your SoC connectivity IP? We interview Gerry Conlon, EVP Ensigma, Imagination

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Imagination is best known for graphics, but its connectivity division, Ensigma, also has a distinguished heritage. It currently offers IP technology for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, high-end networking and broadcast and is the world leader in digital audio broadcasting radio (DAB) IP. It operates across a range of markets from automotive to drones to the IoT, as well as consumer devices such as laptops. In our discussion Ensigma EVP, Gerry Conlon, discusses the benefits of low power connectivity, the debate over ‘make or buy’, and why selecting Ensigma IP can make all the difference to customers wanting to launch differentiated products.

Gerry Conlon, EVP Ensigma, Imagination

Gerry, please start by telling us about your background and your path to becoming EVP at Ensigma?

My academic background is electronics engineering and marketing, with an MBA specialising in high-technology start-ups. I worked as a design engineer in video projection and precision motion control before moving to business development for an embedded electronics design consultancy, which has a very similar commercial cycle to semiconductor IP. I held leadership positions in three technology-based start-ups, two of which were very successful commercially.

From 2010 to 2013, I brought a US-based semiconductor company, iWatt, into Europe. During that period, we developed the European business from a single customer to double-digits and achieved global leadership in ICs for dimmable LED lighting. In seven quarters, we grew globally from $8M to $22M/quarter and were acquired mid-2013 for $345M by Dialog Semiconductor. It was at Dialog that I learnt about the world of connectivity; mainly Bluetooth and an audio standard called DECT which is commonly used in cordless phones.

I joined Imagination as senior director for business development in Ensigma in 2018. When the new management under Ron Black decided to grow Ensigma more aggressively, I was asked to step up to EVP Commercial, with responsibility to build revenue. Babak Bastani is also an EVP of Ensigma and manages the technical aspects of our business. We do not have demarcation lines, with Babak often getting involved in commercial matters, whilst I search for technology partners. Together we share the responsibility of growing Ensigma, as well as contributing to the overall running of Imagination wherever we can.

What are the wider trends that are occurring in the connectivity market?

Imagination acquired Ensigma around 20 years ago, primarily for a software definable radio technology. At the time, the flexibility that software-defined radio provided was a major differentiator and the Ensigma radio processing unit (RPU) was used for multiple connectivity solutions; digital TV, digital radio, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. However, over time, the unit cost of silicon has become a more dominant concern for our customers and to meet this market shift, Ensigma moved to have a greater content of hardware accelerators and functions hard-coded in ROM. We now see several persistent trends emerging – microcontrollers becoming more connected, a relentless push to lower power consumption and customers needing faster time to first revenue. Ensigma’s Wi-Fi IP can be supplied with an advanced power management unit (PMU) pre-integrated, thus dramatically reduced the technical risk and design cycle time.

When it comes to creating an SoC one of the key decisions is ‘make or buy’. Clearly, there will be circumstances where one or the other makes sense, but Imagination is in the IP business – so what would you say to those who might be on the fence?

Whether you should make or buy your IP depends on two key criteria. The primary one is volume and the second one relates to the internal skills needed to design a connectivity SoC. Wireless Communication IP is significantly harder than wired IP such as a CPU or DSP.

The first thing to consider though is do you have enough volume to go past break-even, payback the investment needed to design a custom chip and then go on to enjoy strong profits? If you do, then you should seriously consider getting an SoC designed. Apart from ensuring continuity of supply into the future – look at the current US-China geopolitics – a custom SoC enables you to differentiate your offering and optimise the silicon area, so you can deliver exactly what your end customers want at the most competitive price possible.

The differentiation aspect is not always understood by customers, as many see Wi-Fi or Bluetooth as being only a means to wirelessly communicate data. However, both technologies offer a lot more.

For example, we are experiencing a growing demand for Wi-Fi-based asset tracking and for Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to add additional authentication layers to security applications. By working with an IP company, customers can access layers of data above the PHY that are not typically available with standard silicon, thus enabling augmented functionality platforms on which to build new, highly differentiated, product families. We’ve already licenced our technology to a U.S. company that’s using Wi-Fi for the high-accuracy location of pallets and asset tracking. By fixing Wi-Fi anchors to the warehouse roof in combination with transceivers on the assets being tracked it’s possible to achieve measurement accuracies to less than a metre to determine the precise location of individual pallets.

The second key aspect that SoC designers need to consider is that Wi-Fi is a very complex technology requiring a highly skilled SoC design team to achieve the performance benchmarks needed for certification. There are not many engineering teams in the world that can do this well. Licensing high-quality silicon-proven IP is an absolute necessity to have a fighting chance of creating a high-performance connectivity product. We have observed several companies licensing unproven IP with source code from competitors, on the basis they will magically customise and develop the IP to achieve the performance needed. This is simply naïve, very time-consuming and the results are disappointing. Paying a little extra for high-quality IP will minimise the number of tape-outs needed and get them to first revenue much quicker.

How would you define the risk factor in relation to ‘make vs buy’?

If you decide to make your own chip with IP, rather than buy, you are taking on a major development with technical risk. This tends to be fairly well understood. However, if you decide not to make and just buy standard silicon, you are taking on a market risk – you may not be competitive or sufficiently differentiated. In other words, if your competitor decides to optimise for a specific vertical using a customised SoC and you’re buying standard silicon, you’re unlikely to be commercially successful in high-value verticals.

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth have a long history and are mature technologies but what can we look forward to in terms of new developments?

In the coming 12 months, there will be a big move towards dual-band 802.11n low-power Wi-Fi. 2.4GHz shares air space with legacy Wi-Fi and Bluetooth equipment, as well as microwaves, and has become a very congested spectrum, creating the need for 5GHz capability. As Wi-Fi is all about reliable high data-rate communications, dual-band Wi-Fi is becoming “real Wi-Fi” with single-band demoted to IoT applications where only occasional data transfer is needed.

Further out, 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) will become the dominant play. Up to now, 802.11ax has been mainly seen as a standard for high-speed access point (AP) connectivity, especially in dense environments, targeting 4x improvements in the per-station (STA) throughput compared to 802.11n and 802.11ac. However, 802.11ax can also be a game-changer in the IoT space. Its improved reliability in dense environments will enable mission-critical data to be communicated wirelessly where only wired connections were previously acceptable. For smart home and AIoT applications, 802.11ax has some cool features such as Target Wake Time, which allows an STA/edge node to schedule when it communicates with a central router. This dramatically reduces its power consumption and will enable many mains-powered devices to become battery-powered in the future.

Bluetooth dual-mode (BTDM) has grown in popularity since 2017 and while audio over BLE may mature as a standard format by 2021, legacy equipment needing Bluetooth Classic will remain in everyday operation until 2030 at least, especially in automotive. We will release an ultra-low-power and feature-rich BTDM 5.1 IP in early 2020 to enable excellent audio experiences in the wireless audio market.

We see 802.11n and BLE/BTDM combos becoming a big play in the connectivity world, where the Bluetooth is used to provision a smart home system – security or heating, for example – and the Wi-Fi is used for the heavy lifting high-data-rate communications, especially where video is involved.

Some claim that 5G (particularly 5G NR-U operating in unlicensed spectrum) will replace Wi-Fi entirely. What’s your view?

This won’t happen. 5G and Wi-Fi are complementary rather than competing technologies. If anything, 5G will increase the types of services that can be rolled out by the telecom operators and increase the use of Wi-Fi in the infamous “last-mile”. 5G will drive higher usage of Wi-Fi, with IPTV and cloud-based gaming being two of the underlying market drivers.

How excited are you about the ongoing opportunity at Imagination for Ensigma?

Under Ron Black’s leadership, Imagination is becoming an increasingly cohesive entity. We are seeing great opportunities to combine connectivity with GPU and AI-related IPs. In time, applicable combinations will enable us to dominate specific verticals.

Imagination is a great company to work for – it has some of the smartest people I have ever met. Each day, in fact, each hour presents new challenges and it is wonderful to be at the forefront of technologies that are shaping our futures. I hope our technologies get used, in the main, for purposes that enhance lives and contribute in some small way to addressing humanity’s greatest challenge; climate change. Connectivity can improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of how energy is both generated and consumed – think smart-grid and smart-home. Ensigma IP will be a major contributor to enabling these and every person working on them is an eco-warrior by default! I like that!

Benny Har-Even

Benny Har-Even

With a background in technology journalism stretching back to the late 90s, Benny Har-Even has written for many of the top UK technology publications, across both consumer and B2B and has appeared as an expert on BBC World Business News and BBC Radio Five Live. He is now Content Manager at Imagination Technologies.

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