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Silicon Labs lays down IoT SoC strategy

Posted: 02 Apr 2014  Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Silicon Labs  IoT  SoC  MCU  RF transceiver 

The Internet of Things (IoT) has been touted by many executives in the electronics industry as a major driving force behind current and forthcoming innovations. However, the breadth of IoT is extremely wide-ranging that giving it an exact description just easily comes off as a tall order.

To some, the IoT is all about sensors. To others, it's connectivity. Meanwhile, smartphones and wearable devices are increasingly pitched as the IoT's end node slapped on to human flesh. The IoT is also about smart lighting, smart thermostats, smart homes and smart buildings. Even carmakers discuss the emerging generation of connected cars as the IoT on wheels.

At this year's International CES, Cisco CEO John Chambers summoned the ghost of Ozymandias and touted the "Internet of Everything" as a "$19 trillion opportunity" for businesses, governments and consumers. "This will be bigger than anything done in high tech in a decade," he said.

None of these descriptions is wrong, according to Tyson Tuttle, CEO of Silicon Labs, who gave a keynote address at the recent Global CEO Summit put together by GlobalSources in Shanghai. He said that today's IoT definition is akin to an elephant described by blind men. Tuttle wasn't calling everyone in the industry blind, but he was explaining that the IoT's versatile nature often makes its definition too broad.

During his keynote, Tuttle captured the imagination of the Chinese audience with a slide labelled "IoT SoC." The slide was reportedly created by using a block diagram Tuttle scribbled on a piece of engineering paper. That piece of paper, rather than traveling the typical route of pants pocket to washing machine to oblivion, survived as a photo on Tuttle's iPhone. Here's the original JPEG.

IoT SoC

The IoT SoC consists of six blocks: sensor, low-energy MCU, RF transceiver, energy management, mixed signals and memory.

The diagram shows the concept, not the real chip. Nevertheless, the slide was a huge hit, because it illustrated the IoT in tangible terms. By breaking it into building blocks in the "SoC concept," the slide helped the audience picture what it takes to the build the IoT on a basic level.

Even better, the diagram made Silicon Labs' case for its technologies and product portfolio, especially in combination with Energy Micro, the Norwegian company it acquired last summer, as the key to enabling the IoT.

Silicon Labs' arsenal of IoT-related products includes 8bit and 32bit low-energy MCUs, wireless technology with ZigBee, various flavours of 802.15.4, a number of proprietary standards and an upcoming Bluetooth low-energy solution (devised by Energy Micro). Tuttle said it has "all the pieces necessary to address the low-data rates, low-energy and low-power types of IoT applications."

"With our leading software capabilities and portfolio of energy friendly MCUs, wireless and sensor ICs, we are very well positioned to deliver system-level IoT solutions," Tuttle told EE Times.

The Internet of Things generated more than 15 per cent of Silicon Labs' revenue last year and about 10 per cent in 2012. Cable operators such as Time Warner, Cox and Comcast are eager to push things such as home automation and security products, he said. This year, he expects one-sixth of his company's revenue to come from the IoT: from home automation, security, smart metering, and lighting control to smart buildings and wearable devices.

Silicon Labs has reason to be bullish about the IoT. Half of its $146.2 million of Q4 revenue came from MCU and wireless, timing, power and sensor products. MCU and wireless products alone generated a record 30 per cent of revenue, versus 13 per cent a year earlier. The company attributes this increase primarily to the continued expansion of its MCU and wireless portfolio into the target IoT market.

It also said it gained momentum for the IoT after this year's CES, partly from the huge interest in wearable devices on the show floor. A bigger factor was Google's acquisition of Nest. Silicon Labs' ZigBee wireless chip and networking software are designed into Nest's thermostats and smoke detectors.

The Energy Micro acquisition is fuelling Silicon Labs' confidence in the IoT market. The Oslo company was known for its power-efficient portfolio of 32bit MCUs and its development of multi-protocol wireless RF solutions based on ARM Cortex-M architecture. The acquisition was "a lightning rod" for Silicon Labs, Tuttle said. Because the scalable feature sets offered by Energy Micro's product portfolio were "several years ahead of us," the acquisition "accelerated our IoT roadmap significantly."

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