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Arm adds Linux-on-Cortex-A5 service to MCU-focused DesignStart program

Oct 23, 2018 — by Eric Brown 616 views

Arm has extended its Cortex-M oriented DesignStart program to Cortex-A5 SoCs running Linux. The SoC development platform starts at $75,000 for Cortex-A5 IP access and a year of design support.

Arm’s DesignStart, which helps semiconductor manufacturers develop Cortex-M based MCUs, has for the first time been extended to support a Linux-ready Cortex-A processor. DesignStart for Cortex-A5 now offers developers “the lowest cost access to a Linux-capable Arm CPU,” says the chip IP designer.

The DesignStart program for Cortex-A5 starts at $75,000 for IP access and a year of design support. A $150K option extends the access fee and support to three years. DesignStart also provides a web portal and a simplified contract.

Arm diagram showing scope of DesignStart on Cortex-A5
(click image to enlarge)

Key benefits of DesignStart program for Cortex-A5 includes access to system IP including:


  • Flexible system IP for area and power-optimized SoC development
  • Low-latency Arm CoreLink NIC-400 interconnect for configurable and low-power connectivity with design flexibility
  • Seamless debugging with CoreSight debug and trace solution
  • System-wide security with TrustZone technology

Arm also notes that its “vast range of Artisan physical IP” is available to help SoC developers more quickly tape out a custom chip. Customers can also access “design enablement platforms being supported by 18 foundry partners with process technology ranging from 250nm to 5nm,” says Arm.

Cortex-A5 enables relatively low fabrication costs, in part by offering a small footprint: <0.3mm when implemented on a 40nm process. It also offers high efficiency --~100uW/MHz active power with 40nm -- says Arm. Although we typically see single-core Cortex-A5 SoCs, Arm says the IP can be configured as a fully coherent quad-core design with advanced SIMD data processing, as well as “a high-performance accelerator port for fast connection to machine learning or other custom processors.” The Cortex-A5 design can also “enable advanced machine learning applications with Arm’s Neural Network inference engine, which is part of Linaro’s Machine Learning Initiative, providing wide ecosystem support,” says Arm.  

Cortex-A5 block diagram (left) and Microchip’s SAMA5D27 SOM
(click images to enlarge)

Microchip, through its Atmel acquisition, is one of a relatively few vendors that have run with the Cortex-A5. The company has long sold a SAMA5D family of SoCs, and earlier this year, it announced an open source, mainline Linux-ready SAMA5D27 SOM SiP module. The module is based on its -A5-based SAMA5D27 SoC equipped with 128MB RAM.

Given that the low-power -A5 is ideal for many low-end IoT gizmos, it has surprised us that Arm has not done more to promote the IP. Arm’s soft pedaling of Cortex-A5 was likely linked to its very successful efforts to promote Cortex-M on the low end and to boost Cortex-A7 as a Cortex-A5 replacement. Arm wanted to clearly differentiate between the Cortex-M and -A platforms.

With the relatively low-cost Cortex-A5 DesignStart program, Arm is now ready to serve the projected increase in custom IoT SoC development. We’re likely to see a growing number of smaller-volume SoCs aimed at very specific IoT applications. Many of these will be developed by fabless startups.

Two other trends may have also motivated Arm to push Cortex-A5. First, the open source RISC-V platform is emerging as a threat, especially when competing for smaller SoC design shops that cannot afford Arm’s standard IP licenses. Second, Arm now has skin in the game with its new Mbed Linux OS, which like the MCU-oriented Mbed OS that it’s partially based on, will support its Pelion IoT Platform. Cortex-A5 and -A7 are naturals for running the IoT focused Mbed Linux, which is also based on Yocto Project code.

Further information

The DesignStart program for Cortex-A5 is now available, starting at $75,000 per year. More information may be found in Arm’s announcement in Design & Reuse, as well as a more detailed blog announcement and the DesignStart product page.


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