Semi ecosystem collaboration more critical than ever
By Ann Steffora Mutschler, Contributing Editor - March 2, 2010
As the semiconductor industry and its corollaries continue to climb out from the 2008/2009 recession it remains critical to choose collaboration partners wisely given the ongoing scrutiny on operating expenses.
During the recession, at least from an EDA point of view, Wally Rhines, chairman and CEO of Mentor Graphics Corp, observed that due to the extreme squeeze that was put on expenses at customers, no areas escaped reduction, and to that extent, discretionary spending on design automation was squeezed, as well.
Traditionally in a recession, companies continue to do development in order to be ready for the upturn and cut essentially everything else. As internal tool development is a discretionary expenditure at customers, dependence on commercial EDA solutions very likely increased during the recession, he noted.
From the foundry point of view, Ana Hunter, foundry VP at Samsung Semiconductor Inc, explained that as process technologies advance, they get significantly more complex so collaboration starts much earlier both with the IP companies, as well as the EDA companies.
“Early in the process development we start working with them, giving them early releases of our design kit which includes spice models, parasitic models, design rules, and they start to give us feedback on where they see that they could have some problems with the rules, and if we can change those -- they help us in making our design kits more designer-friendly and at the same time, we help them understand what's coming in the next process node and what they need to do to optimize their tools and what kind of innovation they need to really be able to take advantage of the advances in process technology,” she said.
Engaging with partners early on means that the process is not frozen, which is good and bad, Hunter said. “Good, in that they can influence where it's going to go which is very good for both of us. But difficult in that as development progresses, there can be changes to the kit which can sometimes mean rework for them if they've gotten to certain steps in the development of their tools and find that we had to make a change and couldn't accommodate a certain position, so they have to go back and work up again,” she continued.
This creates a fairly complex matrix of variables on all sides of the equation and managing that requires a lot of communication, sharing a lot of data and very open collaboration on the status, the issues and needs of each party, and trying to accommodate those as best as possible on all sides.
From the semiconductor vendor perspective, leading companies such as AMD view their collaborations with EDA players as strategic. “We could develop many of our own tools, something that large semiconductor companies did many years ago before the advent of a robust EDA industry. However, to do so today would not only be expensive, it would deprive AMD of the opportunity to learn and benefit from the advances in the EDA industry as well as the rest of the semiconductor industry,” explained Jim Miller, part of AMD’s design engineering organization.
Even as the economy improves, AMD anticipates that semiconductor companies will continue to focus resources on areas that provide greater strategic advantage for their business, rather than developing internally what is readily available from other members of the semiconductor design chain. “AMD has been partnering closely with EDA vendors and partners for years on tools and methods that enable the implementation and verification of increasingly complex designs, and we expect that to continue,” he added.
Interestingly, collaboration between industry players is no longer being impacted by the recession, as evidenced by the number of collaborative agreements that carry funding with them. In the case of Mentor Graphics, Rhines said five such programs that were big enough to require his signature have been approved since the beginning of this year, with another in negotiation. This is noteworthy because of the funding attached to these collaborative programs from the customer, and were not things where Mentor had planned to allocate resources, although he stressed they are complementary to what the company would like to do.
Another design tool provider Synopsys has customers increasingly asking for integrated tool flows, according to Matt Gutierrez, director of marketing for Synopsys professional services.
“Customers are increasingly asking for a well-integrated flow, and looking to their EDA vendors to provide more than just point tools but integrated flows that are well-correlated and well integrated with one another to allow the movement of data about the design back and forth between tools in an efficient manner so that they can reduce the number of iterations between the front and back end of the design process,” Gutierrez said. To this end, last year Synopsys rolled out its Lynx Design System, what he describes as an integrated, production-ready IC development platform that combines an open, tapeout-proven RTL-to-GDSII design flow, GUI-based runtime automation, design metrics capture and reporting, and a subsystem that automates the configuration of pre-validated foundry data.
“Especially in this economic environment, customers are really looking to focus their precious resources on the areas where they most differentiate so increasingly I think stitching together flows is not where they think the best use of their resources may be, in that they don't differentiate around creating most of the flow,” he continued.
“It's a symbiotic relationship. [Synopsys] has been able to have consulting that is constantly collaborating with customers often on their most challenging designs. The most difficult challenge is where our consultants tend to be of the most value for our customers,” Gutierrez added.
Along those lines, Agilent EEsof is doing a lot of collaboration with customers on special requests, which fits into the company’s focus on solutions-type marketing, according to Chris Mueth, world business development manager, from the Agilent EEsof marketing team.
“If there is a new technology or a new process, we get customer requests to help support this process for their toolset. On the industry side, we have been more proactive and have actually increased our investment for solutions marketing and work with semiconductor companies. Over the last 18 months – even before the recession really hit – we increased our investment in this area by probably 5x. Not only is it marketing but also on the technical side: a development team, an applications team, and a foundry program manager who works with the different semiconductor companies to make sure that when a new process is out that we are supporting it – so our investment probably bucks the trend a little bit as we've actually significantly increased in this area,” he explained.
Collaboration today for EDA provider Cadence Design Systems encompasses not just tools, but methodologies and design services, as well. Vishal Kapoor, VP of marketing for solutions and services, observed that collaboration in the past was largely on the tool side. However, starting in the heart of the recession, he observed that conversations with customers that previously had been about productivity began moving more towards cost and profitability. This is interesting, Kapoor said, because “in the past that wasn't a conversation that you were even allowed to have and now it became the crux of the conversation – in a recession that pressure of operating expense as opposed to just having funding for something, became an important thing.”
Fortunately, prior to the recession, Cadence had adapted the SaaS (software as a service) model based on customer demand, he said, which has gotten traction with some mid- and high-tier customers in their CAD departments.
What’s next for collaboration?
Indeed, collaboration in the industry will continue on its current trajectory: more interaction earlier in the design process between all semiconductor ecosystem players.
Continuing on its path of bleeding edge technology and SOC complexity, AMD said it would continue to collaborate with the EDA industry, as well as develop its own internal tools and flows. “We are constantly looking at developments in the EDA industry, and as industry tools come out that serve our needs, as well or better than the tools that we develop internally we expect to adopt those, and deploy our CAD resources to develop internal tools that solve the new problems that the EDA industry has not yet solved,” Miller said.
Similarly, Samsung’s Hunter noted that while previously design rules were not that complicated and people understood the shrink path. “Five years ago you didn't have to start collaborating with the IP guys so early on. EDA tools really didn't require that much collaboration. We gave them the design kits and they went and implemented it. But as DFM came into play now really understanding the intent of the rules is critical….[Also,] there is no magic bullet on lithography, it just keeps getting tougher so collaboration with the design tools to squeeze every drop we can out of both the design rules and the process is really important. We have to work really closely with the EDA companies to come up with the best, most cost effective solution from an overall integrated solution perspective,” she concluded.
A final thought: in recognition of the significance of collaboration, eSilicon said last month that its chairman, president and CEO had been nominated to serve on the board of the Global Semiconductor Alliance board as its first representative of the newly created VCP (value chain producer) category. VCP is defined as a company that collaborates with foundries, IP and service providers, EDA suppliers, package, assembly and test operations in designing and producing chips for fabless IC, IDM and OEM companies. According to eSilicon, VCPs optimize the economics of customer value chains and enable customers to focus on their product differentiation and market growth.