Manufacturers typically configure application-specific integrated circuits (ASICS) for targeted use cases. In contrast, a field-programmable gate array – or FPGA – is an integrated circuit with custom logic that is configured by a customer or designer after manufacturing of the underlying FPGA microchip. Although FPGAs offer a number of advantages – including low, non-recurring engineering costs and rapid time-to-market – they also carry a higher unit cost than their ASIC counterparts.
“In-field feature configuration capabilities are clearly an attractive proposition for many in the semiconductor industry. Unfortunately, companies are often forced to forego programmable logic devices (PLDs) due to a significant price differential,” Simon Blake-Wilson, VP of products and marketing for Rambus’ Cryptography Research Division, explained.
“Using CryptoManager, ASIC and ASSP SoCs can be fabbed with highly secure configurable features and/or services within a single chip design – such as in-field provisioning of sensitive data and feature controls – that are typically associated with higher-cost FPGAs. Simply put, these CryptoManager-based SoCs are positioned at the same price as conventional ASICs/ASSPs
SoCs that can be securely configured downstream, says Blake-Wilson, represent the next step in the evolution of silicon and have the potential to redefine the current semiconductor paradigm by unlocking the true — or full — value of chips and extend device lifecycles. Chipmakers already implement limited feature configuration using e-fuses, but such an approach is limited to configuration during chip manufacturing. CryptoManager extends feature configuration throughout the supply chain and into the field.
“This is especially true for higher-end systems, such as those found in semi-autonomous vehicles and at the heart of mobile devices. For example, a recall on some level is currently likely if hackers manage to crack a critical security algorithm in a new electric car,” Blake-Wilson told Rambus Press.
“Such a scenario could be avoided with CryptoManager-based SoCs that drivers manually or automatically update via a cloud-base mobile app. Since CryptoManager-based SoCs are equipped with a hardware root-of-trust, the OTA firmware update would be secure and effective on par with smartcard technologies. There would simply be no need to involve a mechanic, physically rip out systems or conduct a worldwide recall.”
CryptoManager SoCs, says Blake-Wilson, also benefit owners of mobile and IoT devices such as smartphones, tablets and wearables.
“We are essentially asking the end-user: ‘What would you like to do with your chip today?’ By democratizing hardware with an intuitive Features as a Service (FaaS) secure provisioning layer, we are eschewing a one-size fits all approach and allowing consumers to exert greater control over their devices,” he explained. “This effectively means an end to blanket firmware updates. We can offer a more targeted and optimized approach. Want to quickly update your mobile payment capabilities and leave everything else alone? Well, now you can. Want to disable 4G to avoid excessive roaming charges while abroad but find the default software interface confusing? The CryptoManager UI will allow you to do this on a hardware level – so you know 4G is actually switched off.”
According to Blake-Wilson, CryptoManager enabled SoC devices that can be securely reconfigured for specific tasks will also play a major part in building the Internet of Things (IoT). Indeed, as Jim Turley of EE Journal recently reported, developers currently using 8-bit MCUs will soon upgrade to 32-bit units, spurring sales of microcontrollers with licensed processors inside.
“Architects of future smart cities will inevitably design infrastructure equipped with chips in places that are difficult to reach, such as subterranean water pipes, air conditioning ducts and even under roadways,” said Blake-Wilson. “The 32-bit MCUs Turley refers to will need to be ‘future-proofed’ to avoid frequent maintenance, security upgrades and physical upgrades. Using CryptoManager, system architects can significantly extend the lifetime of numerous systems by securely reconfiguring CryptoManager SoC chips – multiple times – to execute new tasks.”