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Facebook acquired IP provider that specializes in on-chip network (NoC) and power-management


Thursday, March 14, 2019

Facebook has acquired Sonics Inc., a privately-held Silicon Valley IP provider that specializes in on-chip network (NoC) and power-management technologies. The deal is another sign that big systems companies like Apple and platform vendors such as Google and Facebook are designing in earnest their own SoCs for captive use.

After our initial story went public on EE Times' website early Wednesday morning, a Facebook spokesperson called us and stated, "I can confirm that we have acquired Sonics." She said, “We’re rapidly developing new VR and AR products and deepening our technology expertise in silicon is an important step for our 10-year roadmap. We’re excited to welcome the remarkable Sonics team and technology to AR/VR at Facebook.”

Asked if Facebook is using Sonics' interconnect IP for datacenter chips, she declined to commment. "It's too early to rule out anything. But our initial focus will be VR and AR," she insisted.

As of Tuesday evening, neither company was talking.

As opaque as it sounds, Sonics' company website simply displays a one-page note — which reads like a farewell letter — entitled “Our Next Chapter." There, Sonics says, “Today, we're excited to announce that we are moving on as a team. As part of this opportunity, we will be winding down our business.”

EE Times has learned that key Sonics executive members are now working for Facebook. Sonic’s co-founder and CTO Drew Wingard has become director of Silicon methodology at Facebook, according to his LinkedIn page. Scott Evans, Sonics’ director of software, is now a CAD and methodology engineer at Facebook. Similarly, George Spatz, Sonics’ director of engineering, lists Facebook as his new employer.

Grant Pierce, CEO of Sonics, did not immediately respond to a voicemail left by EE Times Tuesday.

The Facebook-Sonics deal is already the talk of the town. Sonics’ customers confirmed the deal in conversations with Arteris, a leading interconnect IP vendor and Sonics competitor.

K. Charles Janac, Arteries chairman, president and CEO at Arteris, told EE Times that some Sonics’ customers have come knocking on Arteris’ door. “The same thing happened when Intel snatched up Netspeed,” Janac told us.

“I have never seen anything like this during my career, including the time I worked for Cadence,” said Janac. The competition is creating “a favorable situation [for Arteris],” instead of an adversarial one.

Linley Gwennap, principal analyst at the Linely Group, agreed. “The Sonics deal leaves Arteris as the only supplier of advanced network-on-a-chip IP,” he said. Arm also supplies interconnect IP, but it isn’t as sophisticated as Arteris, he added. In short, “Arteris becomes the leading choice for SoC designers looking for an independent NoC vendor.”

Kevin Krewell, principal analyst at Tirias Research, concurred. “This interconnect technology is critical for high performance SoCs. Arm has its own network-on-chip technology, which was just updated for the new Neoverse cores.”

In Krewell's view, interconnect IPs are increasingly becoming important because “NoCs manage the flow of data on chips and require some specialized knowledge. This puts Arteris in a great spot as one of the last remaining independent NoC vendors.”

What Facebook will do with Sonics?

According to Facebook, Sonics’ interconnect IPs will be initially used in its AR and VR products.

While many industry analysts assumed the key area where Facebook deploys Sonic's IP will be in SoCs that go into datacenters, the Facebook spokesperson declined to comment.

“It would indicate to me that Facebook is indeed working on its own multicore, and probably heterogeneous, processor,” Krewell said. Of course, that’s what all the cool cloud players are apparently doing these days, he added.

Mike Demler, senior analyst at the Linley Group, however, is the only one who suggested, “Yes, Facebook designs ASICs for its data centers, but they also may develop chips for Oculus VR headsets.”

Surprising to Krewell, though, is that Facebook bought the company rather than just licensing the technology.

Linley has another theory. “If the Facebook team decided to use Sonics IP, and Sonics was running out of money, Facebook could have stepped in to ensure the continuity of its design project.” He said this would be similar to what happened in the case of Intel’s NetSpeed acquisition deal last year.

Will Ateris stay independent?

As the interconnect IP market heats up, some industry observers wonder how long Arteris will stay independent, though.

“There is a danger that a large customer could try to take Arteris off the market as well,” Gwenapp said.

That is not going to happen, according to leaders at Arteris, whose annual revenue is around $27 million today. It has been growing at a rate of 20% on average for the past several years. Arteris hopes to go public within three years.

Speaking of the complexity of interconnect IPs, Janac said, “We are not an easy company to compete with.” The interconnect IP business requires continuing investment in R&D resources to meet the demands of all aspects of interconnects. These range from cache coherence and non-coherent cache to peer-to-peer mesh-type interconnects, low power, high performance, small areas and the development of numerous design tools, Janac explained.

“The barrier to entry for the interconnect IP market is high, because it requires a sharp focus on it. We will stay independent. We will make interconnect ‘the backbone’ of the IP industry. And we hope to be a ‘Switzerland’ of IPs for SoC designers,” he added.

Where do interconnect IPs go?

SoC designers need interconnect IP, because it’s increasingly difficult to connect all the complex functional blocks in an SoC, explained Demler. “There are timing issues, management of clock/power domains, cache-coherency requirements, bandwidth requirements, etc. that make interconnect buses and NoCs critical components of SoC design,” he said.

The market for interconnect IPs are not limited to chips used in servers and data centers. They are applied to everything from automotive to smartphones and consumer devices, according to Arteris. To date, Arteris counts 24 customers in the automotive field, 22 in AI, 24 to 25 in China. Those licensees are either using Arteris IP to build SoCs with interconnect or doing “architectural studies,” Janac noted. To lead this market and scale its business, “You need technology, support and infrastructure,” he added.

Demler pointed out Arteris' connections to Qualcomm. “Don’t forget that Arteris previously sold its technology (while retaining patents) and engineering team to Qualcomm, before rebuilding the company,” he said.

“Although NetSpeed was a direct competitor to Arteris [both supplied Mobileye], Sonics hasn’t updated its technology in several years, and most recently focused more on power management features in its interconnect,” Demler said.

Once again, in his opinion, this leaves Arteris as "the only licensable-NoC supplier." Arm's interconnect IP is "mostly complementary to Arteris NoC,” Demler said.

Janac told us that the interconnect IP market is one quarter the size of the processor IP market.

Arteris, now with 100 employees, started out as a French company in 2003. Today, it's headquartered in Campbell, Calif., with a subsidiary in France. While the original company had a number of technologies including FPGAs, emulators and interconnect, Arteris decided in 2005 to put its sole focus on interconnect IPs.

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