Experts At The Table: Changes In The Ecosystem

First of three parts: Partnerships begin earlier for new nodes; time to market becomes critical; true IDMs disappear; relationships become deeper and more expensive.

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By Ed Sperling
Semiconductor Manufacturing & Design sat down with Michael Buehler-Garcia, director of design solutions marketing at Mentor Graphics; Seow Yin Lim, group director for marketing at Cadence; Kevin Kranen, director of strategic alliances at Synopsys, and Tom Quan, director at TSMC. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.

SMD: What’s changing in the ecosystem and how will it continue to change over the next couple process nodes?
Quan: If you look at 28nm, and even at 40nm, we started working with EDA companies with our design rule manual earlier than in the past. Version 1.0 is basically production. At 28nm, we started working with our partners on version 0.1, which is very early, then version 0.5 all the way up to 1.0. With 16nm finFETs, we’re now working on version 0.1. These can change every few days, so the commitment from Synopsys, Mentor and Cadence has to be very high because you have to have a way to synchronize these activities to get to the next version.
Lim: From a partnership perspective, there are multiple levels. There is a partnership in terms of tools, and there is a partnership in terms of IP. From the tools perspective, you have to start much earlier and you have to work hand-in-hand. In previous process nodes, the IP development started much later. Now, at 20nm and with finFETs, at any point in time that we can start we do it.
Kranen: If something is partially or sort of valid, it’s time to start.
Lim: It’s okay if it’s not done, but what we want is to be early to market. For our customers, time to market is critical. They want to see IP that is stable, characterized and validated. That’s why we have to start early. Also, if you think about 28nm, the time from tapeout to sample is three to four months. With finFETs, it’s six months. We don’t have time to wait. We have to start extremely early and tapeout as soon as possible. That way when samples come back we can start validating for our customers.
Kranen: Over the past two or three nodes, the customer gets engaged earlier, too. We’re doing the work together, we have to support the early customers, and the number of customers who are in early has gone up over time. At the leading edge it has gone from one or two to five, and now we’re working with eight or nine very early in the cycle. They’ve got to get in earlier, too, both on the IP and the tool side.
Buehler-Garcia: What’s changed is that the guys who were the lead people before aren’t in the same position today. Some large companies don’t do bulk anymore. And foundries like TSMC aren’t going to go beat up everything. Their job is to be a foundry. So getting in early and getting involved to make sure parts work is critical. The number of people who are working with double patterning is large. The early customers we worked with before understand the deck is going to change. That’s part of the deal, especially with a fabless model. You get the 0.5 deck from the foundry, 0.5 IP, 0.5 software, and it might not work exactly right. That’s part of the discovery. I’m a little concerned that some of these guys who are coming early are going to stress the partnership. There’s an expectation among everyone to do more better.
Quan: It used to be that a lot of customers could wait until it was all settled. Now they know they have to get involved earlier to do their test chip.
Buehler-Garcia: They might get that the process and the tools aren’t there, but you can’t get started without the IP.
Lim: A lot of this is about customer expectations and managing those expectations. The customers who have done it before with their own internal IP and libraries have experienced it. The customers know that when it’s 0.1 or 0.5 it may not work perfectly, but they still want to do it because it helps them get to market more quickly.
Buehler-Garcia: They understand what they’re getting into.
Kranen: The reality is that you have to do one spin just to figure out where you are, and then the second one is all about getting it right.
Buehler-Garcia: On the IP side of the house, the old model is that the IDMs did it all. And then we had everyone else. But some of the big IDMs are no longer involved. The guys who do it all with their own IP, they’re buying more. The entire market is moving to consumer-cycle time.

SMD: So along those lines, are companies still focusing on their own IP?
Kranen: They’re asking, ‘What’s not differentiated?’ They’re starting to understand that they don’t need to do the standard IP.
Quan: The first thing customers have to do is define a test chip for their first tapeout. Those are the ones they want to put the most critical IP on, and most of that is done in-house. Then they work backward, which is what drives the rest of us to know when a critical tool has to be available. If the rest of the IP can comes from outside, that also has to be on the road map.
Lim: There are shifts under way. It used to be that companies built everything from the ground up. Then came the fabless companies, and from vertical it turned horizontal. Now you’re starting to see more large companies doing the full SoCs themselves again.
Kranen: They’re going vertical from a systems perspective.
Lim: And the fabless companies are recognizing that it takes too much investment to do everything themselves, and their customers are doing the chips, too. There are two groups, the fabless companies and the system companies, trying to compete to get to the most advanced SoC in the fastest manner. That’s driving the time to market and more and more use of IP. In some areas, all of them are using the same IP.

SMD: Can an ecosystem keep up with IDMs—or even surpass the IDMs?
Kranen: It has the potential to exceed it.
Buehler-Garcia: There is no such thing as a true IDM anymore. The bill of materials on a smartphone shows that it’s all about time to market. They don’t care where the silicon is from. But who uses advanced technology now? It used to be the military, then it was supercomputers, then servers. Now it’s the consumer. And if it’s not ready by Christmas, you’re out.
Quan: Even on the innovation side, more brains are better. If you look at IDMs, they are more captive. There are very few new markets they try to develop for. If you look at foundries, the customers and the EDA partners and IP partners and all of those together, they will come out much better.
Kranen: The potential is there. The trick is coordinating it and making sure it comes in on time. You don’t want a customer asking for something too late in the cycle. That’s where you get into trouble. The customer may need a piece of IP in six months and what happens if it’s late?
Quan: That’s the discussion around coordination. How do you coordinate all of these parts and optimize interfaces?
Buehler-Garcia: But is there really an IDM anymore? Even the largest IDMs buy a boatload of IP. There are no IDMs like 10 years ago that were driving 90% of the requirements. Those requirements are being driven by five to seven customers these days, not one big one.
Lim: Everyone wants differentiation, too.

SMD: How close do you have to be to your partners in this ecosystem, and how much money does it cost?
Buehler-Garcia: If you’re not going to fund it and run your own program, then you need to partner with someone who will fund it for you and everyone else.
Quan: If you look at the R&D from TSMC and our customers and add all them up, that’s bigger than any IDM in history.

SMD: But is it all going together and being coordinated as a single budget?
Buehler-Garcia: No, it’s lots of individual pieces.
Quan: But if you look at the way we work with Synopsys, Mentor and Cadence, at 16nm, we’ve got all the legal commitments in place and all the companies have agreed to put in resources and time to commit up front. We put in hardware, software and a lot of stuff. There really is a lot of coordination going on.