System vendor selling chips used in its systems

By: Paul A. Clayton (, June 27, 2019 8:25 pm
Room: Moderated Discussions
Selling chips used in one's own systems seems difficult. The volume advantages of multiple users would seem significant in some areas (similar to the differences between ASIC and ASSP). However, overcoming concerns about supporting a competitor and even just avoiding justifying those concerns seem significant hurdles. Sharing also introduces concerns about revealing strategic secrets, communication overhead, dependence on an external source for availability (as well as suitability of price and functionality), and design-by-committee issues.

Itanium was conceptually a merchant processor produced by an independent vendor, but HP's political and financial leverage lead to product shipping delays. Intel may also have been slow to integrate chipset functionality due to such being one of the differentiating features for system vendors. If IA-64 had been successful, SGI, HP, and IBM would have had little opportunity to differential from Dell. This indicates that even a joint venture faces challenges.

Qualcomm seems able to sell mobile phone SoCs while also selling phones. Part of the reason it can do this may be its modem expertise and patents (in for a penny in for a pound) and the availability of alternative ARM processor designs and SoCs.

In the early-ish days of RISC, both Clipper and M88k used independently developed cache-and-MMU chips with somewhat similar characteristics. Such seems like a natural opportunity for short-term cooperation. Since caches (even including MMUs with page table walkers) are much less sophisticated than processors, the value would seem to be smaller. Even something like MIPS' R6000 L2 tag chips (which facilitated an associative off-chip design) would not seem to be such a greatly distinguishing feature that selling them to other system vendors would hurt MIPS.

ARM Holdings is a intellectual content vendor that takes the easier road of not directly competing with its customers in terms of end-product. (One might argue an architectural licensee is competing with ARM core lisensers and so with ARM; a bit like selling gun-steel to some and firearms to others.) However, this strategy seems to have some weaknesses when system-level design integration is relatively important compared to flexibility of integration and the market is relatively small. (Some have argued that ARM Holdings' avoidance of selling hardware has hurt adoption of the ARM ISA in servers. The seeming slowness to more tightly integrate caches with cores also seems like a difficulty coming from trying to please everyone; Processor Optimization Packs may avert this somewhat, providing a hardened design.)

The current economics of integration and production volumes seem to limit opportunities for cooperation for physical products. However, I suspect there are some ASSP-like opportunities. Managing optimization and generality is hard. Managing cooperation among potentially diverse organizations would add to the difficult. Yet I have a vision of cloud-cuckooland.
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TopicPosted ByDate
System vendor selling chips used in its systemsPaul A. Clayton2019/06/27 08:25 PM
  System vendor selling chips used in its systemsGabriele Svelto2019/06/28 04:58 AM
    System vendor selling chips used in its systemsPaul A. Clayton2019/06/28 08:58 AM
      System vendor selling chips used in its systemsGabriele Svelto2019/06/28 03:33 PM
        System vendor selling chips used in its systemsTravis2019/06/28 05:11 PM
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