System on a Chip (SOC) has been with us now for a while, but has come into mainstream focus with the advent of the smartphone and tablet. While people still compare mobile processors, that’s just one part of SOC. In simple terms, SOC is the equivalent of a small computer that includes a motherboard, processor, graphics processor and memory. All enclosed in a single chip.
Besides smartphone and tablets, SOCs are found in many devices including autos, security systems, smart appliances, fitness, and medical devices. Most are built using the low power ARM architecture.
This week I want to take a look at where SOC is today and how future developments will have an impact on IT. SOC is one of the fastest changing technologies in terms of the pace of innovation and where these chips are being utilized. It feels like each time Qualcomm or Apple or NVIDIA announce a new SOC, it blows away the previous generation in ways we haven’t seen since the earliest days of x86 development. It’s an exciting time, no doubt.
While smartphones and tablets are two devices that have risen to mainstream prominence on the back of SOC, they certainly won’t be the only products IT is asked to help manage and maintain. Until phones became “smart” they were considered a by many to be merely a nuisance. It wasn’t until they began connecting to corporate networks, accessing company email and file shares that IT took steps to usher in the era of BYOD where security and management could be centralized.
When it comes to SOC devices you’re likely to encounter in a corporate environment, Apple, Qualcomm, Samsung, and NVIDIA dominate the landscape today.
Apple builds powerful A-series chips to power its iPhone, iPad and iPod lines. Apple was the first to put a 64-bit chip in their products and others soon followed. Apple doesn’t build the most SOC in terms of sheer output, but they tend to be on the cutting edge of features and performance. Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t license the A-series chip design to anyone making this one SOC you’ll only find inside Apple-approved devices.
Qualcomm takes the opposite approach of Apple. They offer a plethora of SOC designs that cover the high, mid, and lower end of the mobile market. Qualcomm has a hit with its Snapdragon branded SOCs that power many different phones and tablets. The high-end quad-core SOC in this series bring 4K video streaming and 3D gaming to portable devices.
NVIDIA is a much smaller player compared to Qualcomm and Apple. But it’s recently come away with some wins with its flagship Tegra chip that powers niche gadgets like the NVIDIA Shield gaming handheld and the Microsoft Surface 2. NVIDIA’s legacy of building performance GPUs comes through in the Tegra design which are known for powering demanding graphical applications.
Samsung follows Apple’s model to an extent in that they build their own SOC designs, but they are also willing to sell those designs to others. Things can quickly become confusing because Samsung will often use a Qualcomm SOC in its high-end Galaxy line of phones, but will then use its own Exynos branded SOCs in mid to lower-tier phones sold outside the United States.
Unlike server and desktop processors where Intel rules all but the very low-end of the market, the SOC ecosystem is vibrant and full of competitors trying to out-innovate each other. Intel does offer its own SOC under the Atom name. While it hasn’t been much of a player, it’s gaining in popularity amongst Android OEMs and some lower-end tablets.
Why should IT concern themselves over the development of SOC? Well, for one thing, as SOCs become smaller and more powerful, they will usher in many new devices. I’m hesitant to refer to this group as the Internet of Things, because that feels much too vague, but many of these new devices will likely fall under that umbrella. Any device that an employee can bring to work and connect to the network, is a device IT is going to want to understand.
One example is the smartwatch. Samsung and LG offer watches today that provide many features of early smartphones. Apple is set to release the iWatch in 2015 and it would be foolish to dismiss its influence on a market (IoT) anxious for its first breakout hit.
Don’t be surprised if you see SOC changes how laptops are designed as well. Today one can purchase a laptop with choice of processor, discrete GPU and choice of RAM amount, but that’s quickly changing. If you look at how Intel is pushing the Ultrabook design you can see that it could mean fewer choices in core components. This means that computers that were repairable become disposable with few repairable parts. I suspect IT will welcome this change, but it may change how devices are approved and deployed.
No doubt we’ll continue to see servers influenced by both ARM and SOC like with HP Moonshot. Even AMD is getting into the game with its quad and octa core Opteron A1100 SOC that will primarily be marketed to those companies building out large data centers.
SOC feels like the Wild West, and we’re all along for the ride.