Collaboration Grows

Push to advance nodes and stacked die drives closer partnerships; optimized products begin to emerge.

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By Ed Sperling
A series of recent announcements by the Big Three EDA vendors and their well-known partners from across the disaggregated SoC ecosystem is lending new credence to the impact of collaboration.

While IDMs such as Apple, Intel, Samsung and IBM continue to blaze their own trail, developing in-house tools, methodologies, processes and chips, fabless companies working with foundries and tools developers are beginning to show some of the same benefits for a much lower cost.

One such effort involves Cadence, ARM and TSMC, which together unveiled a 20nm Cortex A-15 chip. Mike Inglis, executive vice president and general manager of ARM’s processor division, said teams from each company worked closely together to find out what was broken on the process side, then fed that information back into performance optimization and packaging and worked it into the design flow.

“This is how you more easily get to a more optimized solution more quickly,” Inglis said. “It also enables the leading edge and the trailing edge to get to market more quickly.”

This is what IDMs have always done, taking information back and forth between the design teams and the fab and adding tweaks all along the way. But what’s changing is that fabless companies appear to be catching up more quickly than most industry observers believed was possible.

“We’re seeing collaboration that is both horizontal and vertical,” said Lip-Bu Tan, president and CEO of Cadence. “Horizontal involves industry standards among peers and does not differentiate end products. With vertical collaboration, the goal is an end product that is differentiated, whether that involves IP, EDA, the foundry or software.”

Mentor Graphics, meanwhile, rolled out the next version of its Nucleus real-time operating environment that was developed with partners such as Texas Instruments, GCT and Stonestreet One. In a move aimed at conserving power, Mentor has moved some of the power management capabilities such as dynamic voltage and frequency scaling into the kernel of the RTOS, according to Jan Klube, director of the Nucleus product line.

“The software design was built into the application from the beginning versus folding complexity onto the application,” said Klube. “So developers get a simple power management API and a power-aware RTOS.”

One of those developers is TI, which has been working with Mentor as well as ARM for its Stellaris microcontrollers. Miguel Morales, worldwide marketing manager for the MCUs, said the microcontrollers are sold with pre-written software wrapped up in kits.

“Collaboration will have to accelerate,” said Wally Rhines, Mentor’s chairman and CEO, who noted that Mentor is also working with TSMC on “reliability” kits. He added that it will be critical to respond together to new and emerging problems, particularly with stacked die where stress, thermal and parasitic effects will create as-yet unknown issues.

Synopsys, meanwhile, has been working closely with TSMC and ARM to improve yield and deal with process variations.

“As we look ahead, there is the notion that an upstream tool can know what a downstream tool must do,” said Aart de Geus, chairman and CEO of Synopsys. “We need to be able to move forward to place and route before we finish synthesis, and we need to be able to question why we should do all the work if an issue is not resolvable.”

De Geus noted that collaboration is the answer to systemic complexity. “We must be committed, and we will need to collaborate with partners that have competence.” He added that there also is a need for quick compromise, balancing a “great enough” solution against a better one that will take longer to develop.