October 31, 2023
In electronics, the name of the game is “more performance, less power, and less space.” Especially in portable devices such as tablets and smartphones, massively complex technology must fit within the smallest possible footprint and use the least amount of power. To create devices that are both fast and small, engineers eliminate the need for multiple integrated circuits by consolidating all the necessary components into a single package, called a system on a chip (SoC).
A system on a chip is an integrated circuit that compresses all of a system’s required components onto one piece of silicon. By eliminating the need for separate and large system components, SoCs help simplify circuit board design, resulting in improved power and speed without compromising system functionality. Components contained within an SoC can be:
Compact SOCs have become an indispensable solutions for various markets, spanning from wired applications like data centers, artificial intelligence (AI), and high-performance computing (HPC) to battery-operated devices like mobile phones and wearables.
With smaller devices so common in our everyday lives, it’s hard to imagine a time when SoCs weren’t in everything. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the concept of fitting an entire system onto a single microchip first became a reality.
1970s: According to the Computer History Museum, the first system on a chip appeared in an LCD watch in 1974. Until then, microprocessors had only been standalone chips that required the support of external chips.
1980s-90s: Advancements in semiconductor manufacturing technology made it possible to integrate more components on a single chip. Mixed-signal integration allowed chips to process both analog and digital signals.
2000-2010s: SoCs began integrating Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellular modems, bringing wireless communications to our mobile devices. The addition of powerful processors and graphics capabilities helped make smartphones a new way of life.
Present: SoCs are becoming increasingly specialized and are expanding beyond mobile to include automotive systems, wearable devices, industrial automation, and more. New features include artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and edge computing.
Thanks to their ability to be customized for highly specialized requirements, SoCs can be used in a variety of applications, from children’s toys and doorbell cameras to industrial engines. Some SoC uses include:
The integration of multiple components onto a single chip offers numerous benefits. But when determining if an SoC is the right solution for a device, these benefits must be weighed against the challenges of such a complex design.
Similar to an integrated circuit, the design workflow for a system on a chip involves several stages to plan, refine, and produce. Each stage requires the collaboration of experts including system architects, design engineers, and manufacturers. The major milestones of the SoC design flow include:
The demand for smarter, faster electronics in increasingly challenging spaces will continue to drive the need for SoC innovation. As SoCs are becoming more complex to meet market demands, design engineers should follow a formalized approach to designing and validating these chips. Simulation is an important key to creating a successful SoC design that meets the required design and manufacturing specifications. The power delivery network is getting more complex, and low-power concerns shrink the supply voltage. As a result, signing off the design for signal integrity and power integrity is critical.
Learn more about digital ICs, SoCs, and different signoff technologies in this on-demand webinar: “Redefining Power Integrity Signoff Methodology Using Ansys RedHawk & Seascape Platform.”
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