ARM Announces Update to its DesignStart Program for Custom SoC Designers

To encourage the growth of SoCs and connected devices, ARM announced an update to its DesignStart program.

ARM has a vision for the near future: one trillion globally connected devices. Achieving this goal comes with logistical and technical hurdles. As a step toward their ultimate goal, ARM announced an update to its DesignStart program. The updated DesignStart can cater to OEMs, start-ups, and smart analog providers looking to lower the design cost of SoCs.

ARM's DesignStart Program

ARM’s DesignStart IP Online Access has been around for more than a decade and gives designers, researchers, and students access to the ARM Cortex-M0 processor, which is used in markets including IoT, sensors, and control and mixed-signal SoCs.


DesignStart can be used to build custom chips for a variety of areas. Image courtesy of ARM.

The program is designed to engage custom SoC designers. Why custom SoC designers in particular, you ask? ARM's demonstrating a bet on the future here by creating a whole ecosystem around custom SoCs, which they argue are more efficient (in both energy and size), reliable, and affordable than typical PCBs.

Thr program's primary function is to provide these SoC designers with resources such as training courses and tools. There are multiple levels of these resources, ranging in complexity and cost.
There's also a forum where designers can interact with each other. In this way, DesignStart has an element of open source that's interesting to pair with the program's very intentional focus on helping designers with IP protection.

Updates Designed for Developers

In addition to the Cortex-M0 processor, users will now have access to the Cortex-M3, as well. Compared to the exceptionally small -M0 which is designed to be hyper-efficient and suitable for small form factors, the -M3 is more suitable for mainstream devices.


The ARM Cortex-M0 and -M3 processors are now both available for DesignStart users. 

The update of DesignStart involves two different offerings: DesignStart Eval and DesignStart Pro.
DesignStart Eval is open to anybody wanting access to the Cortex-M0 and -M3, their subsystems, and evaluations with their own IP and peripherals. Beyond the ready-to-run evaluation system is FPGA prototyping, with support for the mbed OS. A time-limited license of MDK is included. This side of the program is suitable for a wide swath of the design community, including makers, students, and professional designers or even mainstream companies in the early stages of a project.

DesignStart Pro is much more focused on allowing for effective commercialization of designs. It's generally tailored more for companies looking to develop their own chip, beginning with a verified subsystem. After customization, companies can produce and ship their creation.
Design assistance services are available for both options.

Royalty-Based Licensing for Startups and Enterprise

One large aspect of the DesignStart update centers around the initial costs previously associated with designing SoCs. “We’ve completely removed the upfront license fee (starting at $40,000 USD) for the Cortex-M0 and Cortex-M3. Companies can now develop their chip with a success-based, royalty-only model. We see these changes to DesignStart as key enablers to that vision of distributing connected devices,” said Phil Burr, Senior Product Manager at ARM.

What this means for designers is that they pay for the license based on their success. This is a pretty big shift and could be attractive for startups and designers who are trying to commercialize designs. If a design does exceptionally well, the fees increase. If a design doesn't quite take off, however, there's significantly less risk involved in the investment of the program. That reduced risk represents a serious pain point for smaller companies trying to break into the industry where every dollar counts.




It's clear that ARM is venturing to create a holistic resource for SoC design. The updates to the DesignStart program reflect a trend among of major companies: acknowledging and making resources for an increasingly influential demographic of independent designers and makers who are looking for ways to commercialize their work.
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