Understanding System-on-Chip (SoC): Components, Construction, & Capabilities

Sridhar Panchapakesan

Nov 14, 2022 / 3 min read

Synopsys Cloud

Unlimited access to EDA software licenses on-demand

A few decades ago, the term System-on-Chip (SoC) was just a technical jargon. Today, it's a crucial technology that's propelling the electronics industry forward. The rise in SoCs is a testament to the ongoing trend of enhanced integration and embedded computing, which paves the way for devices that are compact, cost-effective, speedy, and energy-efficient. You can find SoCs in a wide range of devices, from smartphones and tablets to IoT gadgets, routers, and cameras.

What is a System-on-Chip (SoC)?

At their core, SoCs are microchips that contain all the necessary electronic circuits for a fully functional system on a single integrated circuit (IC). In other words, the CPU, internal memory, I/O ports, analog inputs and output, as well as additional application-specific circuit blocks, are all designed to be integrated on the same chip. SoCs differentiate themselves from traditional devices and PC architectures, where a separate chip is used for the CPU, GPU, RAM, and other essential functional components. 

Various SoCs are developed depending on their intended device. For example, SoCs on smartphones or other IoT devices may also incorporate Wi-Fi and cellular network modems. In the traditional approach, SoCs use shorter wiring between circuit blocks to reduce power expenditure and increase efficiencies.

Understanding the Components and Construction of SoCs

System-on-chips, as their name implies, contain nearly all the necessary functional circuit blocks for a full system on a single chip. Generally, you will find the following components on any SoC:

  • A processor with multiple cores in the form of a microcontroller, microprocessor, digital signal processor, or application-specific instruction set processor.
  • Memory capabilities such as RAM, ROM, FLASH, EEPROM, and/or cache memory.
  • External interfaces for wired communication protocols such as HDMI, USB, FireWire, USART, SPI,  I²C, or Ethernet.
  • Wireless capabilities such as WiFi or Bluetooth and other radio frequency capabilities.
  • A Graphical Processing Unit (GPU) for accelerating specific tasks.
  • Voltage regulators, phase lock loop (PLL) control systems, built-in oscillators, timers, and analog-to-digital (ADC) converters.
  • Intrachip communication subsystems for connecting individual circuit blocks, such as Interface busses or newer intercommunication networks known as networks-on-chip (NoC).
  • Digital, analog, and mixed-signal processing circuit blocks for any sensors, actuators, data collection, and data analysis.
  • SoC capabilities powering the next generation.

Generally, engineers want to reduce energy waste, save on spending, and further miniaturize devices. With system-on-chip technology, this is possible through advanced integration methods on a single IC. 

These compact and versatile chips have powered the rise of smartphones, allowing for incredible power in a small form factor. Similarly, due to their compact and power-efficient qualities, manufacturers are incorporating SoCs into new IoT devices, embedded systems, and even automobiles. 

Furthermore, we’ve also seen a shift in SoC technology used in personal computers and laptops to further reduce power consumption and improve performance. Less circuit real estate generally results in less heat generation, less power consumption, and a lower cost of production. This has allowed more efficient device design for heat distribution, minimal latency, and accelerated data transmission. 

Because SoCs are highly specialized, they are often applied in individualized tasks. Custom SoCs are now being developed for specific applications such as enhancing machine learning, advanced AI capabilities, and high-performance computing with faster data processing. SoCs can perform multiple calculations as a distributed operation (rather than the limited parallelism offered by traditional CPUs) to further accelerate calculations. For this reason, many companies are now investing in their own development of custom SoCs to support their advanced data and signal processing needs. 

Synopsys, EDA, and the Cloud

Synopsys is the industry’s largest provider of electronic design automation (EDA) technology used in the design and verification of semiconductor devices, or chips. With Synopsys Cloud, we’re taking EDA to new heights, combining the availability of advanced compute and storage infrastructure with unlimited access to EDA software licenses on-demand so you can focus on what you do best – designing chips, faster. Delivering cloud-native EDA tools and pre-optimized hardware platforms, an extremely flexible business model, and a modern customer experience, Synopsys has reimagined the future of chip design on the cloud, without disrupting proven workflows.


Take a Test Drive!

Synopsys technology drives innovations that change how people work and play using high-performance silicon chips. Let Synopsys power your innovation journey with cloud-based EDA tools. Sign up to try Synopsys Cloud for free!

About The Author

Sridhar Panchapakesan is the Senior Director, Cloud Engagements at Synopsys, responsible for enabling customers to successfully adopt cloud solutions for their EDA workflows. He drives cloud-centric initiatives, marketing, and collaboration efforts with foundry partners, cloud vendors and strategic customers at Synopsys. He has 25+ years’ experience in the EDA industry and is especially skilled in managing and driving business-critical engagements at top-tier customers. He has a MBA degree from the Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley and a MSEE from the University of Houston.

Continue Reading