What is a System on a Chip (SOC)?

David White

The demands on computer chips and processors these days is staggering. Even the simplest computer is required to complete complex tasks simultaneously. Basic emails can now contain photos, image files, and even multimedia audio and video.

A computer chip.
A computer chip.

More and more is being asked of computers, and the space available inside a computer's chips and processors is shrinking, creating an inverse relationship of stronger demand for functionality on less and less physical space. The physical limits of silicon and chips themselves will eventually create an end game for this sort of progress. To this end, some manufacturers are pursuing the Grant Unified Theory of computing known as System-on-a-Chip, or SOC. SOC combines all the various components of a computer onto a single chip.

Everything needed to run a computer is contained in an SOC chip.
Everything needed to run a computer is contained in an SOC chip.

The benefits of SOC are self-evident: Everything needed to run the computer is contained in that one chip - the smaller the better. This includes the computer's operating system, electronic functions, memory of all varieties, timers, interfaces like USB and FireWire, voltage regulators, timers, microprocessors, and basic utility software applications. The chip has all that is needed to run even detailed computer functions.

The uniqueness of SOC is that it is both software and hardware. The enemies of SOC, though, are time and money. It takes much more of both to manufacture one SOC than it does to make a large handful of traditional chips, mainly because the procedures and the materials needed are still relatively new and unfamiliar. This is likely change, however, as more and more chipmakers discover the utility of SOC and its possibilities.

The main obstacle to a final version of SOC continues to be the laws of physics. When you start mixing hardware and software, the demands on the chip and its silicon can be tremendous, sometimes conflicting or impossible with current technology. Alternative surface areas are being created, ones that don't have the same space or conductivity requirements as solid silicon. Advancements in nanotechnology are making these alternative surface areas possible. In the end, SOC might not be so far around the corner.

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Discussion Comments


@SKyWhisperer - I can think of one arena where SOC hardware would particularly beneficial – smart phones. Since these devices have evolved to the point where they contain their own operating systems and applications, I think that SOS would streamline the ability to offload necessary software onto the smart phone.

It might make it possible to put more applications on the phone as well, making them more powerful and comparable to desktop or laptop computers in terms of their functionality.

We are almost at that point already, but having a complete system on a chip would enable smart phones to take an even bigger leap in that direction.


@allenJo - I wouldn’t discount the technology just yet. Microsoft has announced that their future versions of Windows will support System on a Chip architecture. I don’t know technically how it work but I would assume that it means Windows will be installed directly on the chip.

The only question I would have about such an arrangement is how would it handle software upgrades? It’s quite common for Microsoft to release Windows patches on a periodic basis so how would that work if the software is more or less hard coded onto the chip?

I don’t claim to have the answers but I am sure that Microsoft has thought this one through if they’re planning on integrating with companies building SOC hardware.


I have to ask one simple question. How do you interface with this system on a chip?

The advantage of current computer architecture is that every component is segmented out to perform a single operation, and it has its own interface.

A Firewire card, for example, has its own connection ports. Will we have a whole bunch of connection ports on these computer processors if everything is on one chip? I imagine that these would have to be some pretty small connectors given the size of the average computer chip.

I just see too many logistical problems with implementing SOC design and don’t see much in the way of a real benefit.


"[T]he space available inside a computer's chips and processors" is *not* shrinking. Transistors are getting smaller which leads to more transistors in the same amount of area as a previous generation.

Grant Unified Theory?

"When you start mixing hardware and software, the demands on the chip and its silicon can be tremendous, sometimes conflicting or impossible with current technology." Give me a break. That sentence is utterly meaningless.

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