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The relevance of open source intellectual property cores for the IoT development

Mastering the development in IoT is a critical challenge for many enterprises. The enablement to connect sensors and devices to vast mass amount of data as well as its analysis to innovate processes and business models is crucial for entrepreneurial success. In the discussion how to make IoT profitable, the focus is rather on data analytics. But: The extraction of strategic and operative relevant data is only one part. Barely recognized and underestimated are functionality and costs of the hardware components, which enable connectivity between sensors and devices.

From Denis Daunhauer

The core component of every connected sensor or device is the incorporated chip set or more precisely, the functional design of the chip set, the intellectual property cores (IP-cores). Consequently, IP-Cores can be seen as the blue prints of IoT sensors or platforms that allow to define elements like data processing, storage or security.

Besides the technical dimension, there is also a market perspective. For decades, a few commercial intellectual property vendors dominated the market for IP-cores. Since 2010, the open source movement is increasingly changing this market, especially the RISC-V initiative. Both perspectives will be examined in more detail.

The technical perspective

IP-cores are pre-fabricated, tested and a partially verified function block of a chip design. They are the basis for new chip designs or integrated into chip designs of other manufacturers. These modular components bring IoT to life since they enable sensors and micro controllers to collect and analyze data. For example, the average smartphone has 14 sensors that detect everything from external temperature to movement. Combined with a micro controller it is possible to give the data an IoT value.

But simple data collection and analysis is not enough. With the growing importance of real-time data analysis and the increasing amount of collected data you need high performing IoT processors to handle the increasing complexity. Moreover, since IoT devices are portable to a large extend power efficiency is also important.

Security is the third big issue that needs to be addressed in the context of IoT. With IP-cores it is possible to embed security features into the hardware by adjusting the hardware source code. This is a highly critical topic for the success of IoT. For example, in November 2017 Intel had to announce a security breach in the management engine (firmware) of their CPUs.

Who generates profit with IP-cores and how?

As mentioned before, IP-cores are modular functional blueprints that can be integrated into chip and micro controller designs. The core business model is based on licensing IP-core blueprints for chip manufacturers like Intel, AMD, or Nvidia. The licensing model is done by very specialized IP-vendors like ARM or MIPS. One reason why the market for IP-cores was dominated by a view companies for serval years.

The open source movement

This strong dependency and their lock-on standards raise the desire for an open source approach in order to reduce costs and licensing fees, increase the customization of IoT device functionality and to accelerate IoT diffusion by prototyping. Market players are hoping for an open source movement similar to the development of the open source software industry. Here, the industry changed from a technology-based industry to a service-oriented one. The core of the business model is no longer the source code, i.e. the program itself and its sale, but the services around the software, such as consulting, customer specification, support and maintenance.

The open source movement started 5-10 years ago for hardware development with open source IP-cores around 2010. This movement increases the efficiency and security of embedded micro controllers and it could enhances IoT usage. For example, many manufacturing companies are struggling with the implementation of IIoT use cases because of security concerns, since micro controllers have limited storage and functionality. An open source development of the MIT enables the transmission of the IoT standard security protocol “Datagram Transport Layer Security” (DTLS) to a DTLS protocol controller. In this way, memory capacity has been saved and security has been increased via integration into a chip set.

One of the main drivers of the Open Source IP Core movement is the RISC-V initiative. The open instruction set architecture (ISA) is licensed (Berkeley Software Distribution License). Thus, the open source ISA can be used by anyone to develop or update an open source IP without fee and the duty to republish the new development. Key players like Sifive or Western Digital are already using the RISC-V ISA or are developing respective devices. E.g, Sifive developed the first 64-bit quadcore SoC based on the free instruction set RISC-V. Western Digital also plans to create processors and micro controllers based on RISC-V architecture.

From a future perspective, open source IP will enable the development of customized System-on-a-Chip designs that can perform tasks that are more complex. This can be used in fixed (ASIC) as well as programmable (FPGA) chip sets. A company that is already on this way is CEVA. CEVA uses open source IP-cores in Wifi-boards and Bluetooth chips.

Also, the graphic processing unit manufacturer (GPU) Nvidia gives open access to its general-purpose graphics processing units (GUGUPs) the accelerate the deep learning development for self-driving cars, robots and other high-end autonomous platforms.

As indicated (open source) IP-cores have an effect on IoT devices on three dimensions.

The effect of open source IP-cores on IoT

1. Open source IP-cores can improve the collaboration between IoT sensors and embedded micro controllers to drive the right data from the collected data.
2. Performance and functionality of processors can be customized to the IoT device application.
3. Security components can be adjusted and incorporated into hardware source code. This important issue concerns many companies and industries while implementing Industrial IoT. An open source IP-core approach that addresses these concerns is the DTLS protocol controller developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The DTLS protocol controller is a transmission of the IoT standard protocol “Datagram Transport Layer Security” (DTLS). This open source controller can be directly integrated into the chipset and does not need a security software plug-in.

In summary, IP-cores can be the driver for the mass diffusion of IoT. The open source approach is speeding up this change.