System on Chip (SoC)

What is SoC?

A system-on-chip (SoC), is, as the name suggests, an integrated circuit that contains an entire computer system onto a single platform. The main components in an SoC typically include a CPU, GPU, memory, storage, networking, and input/output ports. This is different to a desktop computer, where the key components are typically discrete and can therefore be swapped out and upgraded, such as the CPU, the memory, the storage, and the graphics board. As the components on an SoC are hard coded into the silicon this means the device cannot be upgraded. However, the benefit is that the design can be highly optimised for the use case and can be compact and power optimised.

SoCs are used in all embedded electronic devices, from toys, and calculators to cars and industrial robots. For a long time, their integrated and low-power nature meant that SoCs were mainly found in relatively inexpensive and non-performant devices. However, thanks to the ever-increasing capabilities of microprocessors, GPU and memory designs, SoCs are now the foundation of much of our electronics. They are used in markets from automotive to entertainment to mobile technology, to today’s hobbyist computers. Smartphones were made possible thanks to the advances in SoC designs and they now even appear in some laptop computers.

Some companies take off-the-shelf SoCs, but to build a differentiated product requires building a custom SoC. Building an SoC internally from scratch is cost prohibitive, which is why companies look to IP, to cost-effectively create a custom designed SoC that meets the power and performance needs of their product, without years of development time or taking the risk of investing in new technology.