Arm has introduced a new program empowering system-on-chip (SoC) designers to experiment, evaluate and undertake full projects with a wide range of Arm IP before having to license it. Through its Flexible Access engagement model, Arm will charge a fee of $75,000 a year for one tape-out annually, or $200,000 a year for unlimited tape-outs.

The program is a well-structured defensive maneuver. Smaller companies have been exploring RISC-V, a new open-source alternative to ARM, enticed by the lower up-front costs. Typically, partners and companies license individual components from Arm and pay a license fee upfront before they can access the technology. By removing the obligation to license its IP first, Arm expects the new program will extend silicon design opportunities not only for startups and other new customers, but current partners as well.

Designers are looking to respond quickly to market needs and need quick access and greater flexibility. A persistent complaint has always been the time it takes to negotiate licensing contracts — the licensing process itself becomes a barrier. That's another reason some designers explore open source processors — to get faster access and experiment quickly.

Arm had already responded with its DesignStart program which provides free access to Cortex-M0, M1 and M3 cores. But the new Arm Flexible Access model extends this even further. In a blog to coincide with today’s announcement, Arm’s senior vice president & general manager for automotive and IoT, Dipti Vachani, said the changes being introduced in its IP licensing business are significant and a direct result of listening to its 500 plus licensing partners. She said, “Our experience has shown us that long-time and new customers can reap great rewards equally from being able to experiment more easily before committing to a particular technology path, and Arm Flexible Access enables that.”

Dipti Vachani

Dipti Vachani, Arm (source: Arm)

Arm Flexible Access provides access to selected cores and IP from Arm without having to pay an upfront license fee. It complements standard Arm licensing which continues to be the option for partners seeking access to Arm’s full product portfolio and most advanced IP.

With the flexible access program, designers pay a modest fee for immediate access to a broad portfolio of technology, and pay a license fee only when they commit to manufacturing, followed by royalties for each unit shipped. This portfolio includes all the essential IP and tools needed for an SoC design, making it easier to evaluate or prototype with multiple IP blocks before committing to licenses.

IP available through Arm Flexible Access includes the majority of Arm-based processors within the Arm Cortex-A, -R and -M families. These CPUs accounted for 75 percent of all Cortex CPU licenses signed over the last two years.

It also includes Arm TrustZone and CryptoCell security IP, select Mali GPUs, system IP alongside tools and models for SoC design and early software development. Access to Arm’s global support and training services are also included.

Rene Haas, president of the intellectual property group at Arm, added, “By converging unlimited design access with no up-front licensing commitment, we are empowering existing partners and new market players to address new growth opportunities in IoT, machine learning, self-driving cars and 5G.”

Experimentation is Key

The ability to react to industry needs and experiment is the core argument of open source technologies, and one which Arm has been under pressure to respond to. Arm’s Vachani said the industry is under constant pressure to do more and semiconductor players need to do more to react faster to technological and business challenges. She commented, “Companies developing products from constrained single-core chips to full scale hybrid computing solutions must experiment at hyper-speed to find their magic recipe and get to market quickly — while still keeping a tight rein on costs.”

This pressure means developers face a classic innovator’s dilemma, according to Vachani: “How to move ‘thoughtfully fast’ while maintaining a grip on quality, security and sanity. It’s something we care about a great deal because of Arm’s position in the technology ecosystem. So, we have made a bold move: Arm Flexible Access, an entirely new way of accessing our industry-leading chip technologies in a far quicker, easier and ultimately flexible way.”

Arm has been aware of industry concerns about its high cost of entry and the challenge from open source technology and has been strategizing on how to address this challenge for a while, as several company executives had told us privately over the last few months. In defending the cost of entry with Arm for its cores, the company has always stressed the importance of availability of tools and ecosystem to take a design all the way from concept to final chip, and how open source processors had some way to go to provide the same level of support.

However, the competition from RISC-V is evolving and gaining momentum, and so this is certainly a step in the right direction for Arm to take on the open source movement and play on a level playing field, by providing a lower-cost route to access a large selection of its processors and tools.