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Date: 10-04-17

SoC Chips and Modules to simplify your IoT hardware/board design

Internet of Things (IoT) drives the growth of semiconductor industry in the next years. Baseband processors, Batteries, Cameras, Memory chips, Touch sensors, Wi-Fi, etc., - all have undergone broad technological advancements at a brisk pace. So, naturally, the chip makers have realized to design smaller, cheaper but more powerful components.

IoT is still highly fragmented with a lot of partial solutions and thus developing successful products depends mainly on the competence to integrate and apply these solutions. For example, it’s crucial to combine the functionalities of sensors, actuators and computing power – such as security, connectivity and microprocessors.

Sometimes a single-chip solution is not always possible or preferred. Many semiconductor companies have released highly integrated devices (modules) to support new IoT products. For example, new low-power System-on-Chip (SoC) integrated module support both wireless protocols, and external sensing and communication technologies. The inherent complexity of RF design, wireless connectivity and qualifying compliances are easily achieved by using these integrated modules.

Modules drive “Rapid time-to-market, Wide range of products” while ICs move with “Less expensive, Custom Design products”

IC or module based wireless solutions can be adopted after carefully evaluating various application needs as well as considering the benefits and drawbacks of each one of the solutions.

Module – Standard IC utilizing various components such as crystal oscillators, power amplifiers, RF shield, antenna, passives, etc., required to a fully functioning RF solution in a single device. By using modules, the device manufacturers can take the final products to market more quickly (time-to-market), enjoy low RF design and development cost, and range of products can be developed.

The basic factors that drive the selection of a Module are:

a. When volume is low (results in saving cost of hardware design)

b. When manufacturing capability is limited

c. When small size requirements arise

d. To avoid efforts and time placed for qualification and testing

IC – The designer can select various components from different vendors of choice from the preferred list to build the RF function, which is also quite complex and require specialized RF expertise. Module is expensive than an IC while the form factor in space constraint applications can be achieved at the designer’s need and limitations by using direct IC integration.

The basic factors that drive the selection of a Chip IC are:

a. When customized and specific hardware is needed

b. When full manufacturing potential exists with the customer

c. When lowest / optimal bill-of-materials cost is a critical criteria

d. When RF and other expertise is not a concern

Hardware Complements Software in Securing IoT Solutions

IoT security is not a battle you can simply hope to win once and for all. With each new technology breakthrough, there’s always new threats posed. Some common security risks are device/software loss, data and intellectual property (IP) theft, forged user identity, sabotage causing crash, modifications of systems, processes, information, etc.,

Internet counterfeiting and hacking are the sinister side of the IoT technology to closely watch for. Actual security threat levels and perceptions differ from product to product and application to application. So, there is a strong need to isolate the IoT devices from undergoing security threats by adopting advanced security methods.

Chip manufacturers are offering hardware-based security solutions across the full application spectrum. Chip security in the form of TPMs (Trusted Platform Modules) act as a root of trust by protecting sensitive information and credentials (i.e., not releasing encryption keys outside the chip). Chip “fingerprinting” uses Physical Unclonable Functions (PUFs) built into the chip hardware to uniquely identify a chip’s authenticity. PUFs are widely used in many chips being built today. Other protecting methods include cryptographic techniques, anti-counterfeit technology, anti-tampering features, licensed DPA (differential power analysis) countermeasures, multiple key storage elements, secured flash memory, encrypted bitstreams, etc.,

Top Players: (Not ranked by any spec, just a listing)

Intel Corporation, Qualcomm Inc., Freescale Semiconductor, NXP Semiconductors, ARM Holding PLC, Microchip (acquired Atmel), STMicroelectronics, Texas Instruments, Cypress Semiconductor (acquired Spansion), Broadcom etc.,

Some more analytical points:

By 2018, it’s expected that ICs for modules make up 39% of the overall market for  low-power wireless chips while the remaining 61% would be made up of chip-on-  board IC shipments.

The IoT Chip market comprising of Microcontroller Units, Memory, FPGA, Sensors, Wireless Connectivity solutions, etc., is predicted to grow close to USD 11 billion  by 2022.

Maxim’s reference design MAXREFDES143# for IoT security is built to protect an industrial sensing node by means of authentication and notification to a web server.

Microchip’s AWS-ECC508 is designed to provide end-to-end security between the IoT device and the cloud infrastructure; chip relies on “elliptic curve cryptography”.

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