Experts At The Table: Evolving Standards

First of three parts: Why even the largest companies are abandoning their internally developed tools and where the next standards will be.

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System-Level Design sat down with Keith Barkley, senior engineer in IBM’s systems and technology group; Steven Schulz, president and CEO of Silicon Integration Initiative (Si2); Yatin Trivedi, director of standards and interoperability programs at Synopsys; Ian Mackintosh, chairman of the OCP International Partnership (OCPIP), and Michael Meredith, vice president of technical marketing at Forte Design Systems. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.

By Ed Sperling

SLD: Problems lead to standards, followed by new problems that require standards. What are the problems that need addressing now?

Schulz: Our next effort will be to create a standard for 3D chip integration. This is an important area as Moore’s Law runs out of economic steam, if not technologically. The need for stacking die, and having standards for through-stack vias, how you handle the electrical modeling of that and the geometrical positioning and synchronizing of them has to be done not only across a multivendor flow for a particular die, but across different companies that are putting together the different die that you’re assembling into a package. Many companies have said they’ve gone as far as they can go without standards. You need the processor and stacked memory. If you’re doing a wireless communication device you’ll need the RF fabric with analog baseband on top of some digital and some memory. Often it’s easier and cheaper to do it with different die.

SLD: Is that because of heat?

Schulz: Both heat and economics. To continue integration in 2D is getting too costly, the line lengths are too long, there are uncertainties of how you do the routing, the design fabric—everything has its own specialty from a manufacturing standpoint. The real estate is a problem.

Meredith: As a general rule of thumb, the need for standards in EDA are always at the top and at the bottom. At the bottom, it’s where new process geometries create new challenges. And at the top, as we try to raise the level of abstraction we’ve got SystemC and ESL standards.

Trivedi: Whether it’s top and bottom or front and back, the IP goes all over the place. How you use it, deploy it, verify it and integrate it may be in the middle of the design process. I think of it more as exigencies, not top or bottom

Mackintosh: I think the hotspot right now in all of this is the economy. The result is that more people are open to standards and need to share costs. They’re far more open to collaborating and getting to market faster because there are fewer opportunities these days. Standards allow you to commoditize expert knowledge.

Barkley: Even internally at IBM we’ve been trying to share IP among the P series and Z series. We had to enforce internal standards just to be able to share things among our own groups. In terms of sharing costs, IBM years ago had its own internal models, GL1, NBRs, which really gave us a competitive advantage. What we found is that we couldn’t afford to do everything ourselves. We started working on OpenAccess in 2003. We’ve gone from GL1 to Oasis. We’ve gone from internal data models like VIM and CDBA to OpenAccess. We’ve moved away from our internal models and rules to industry standards, which allows us to use some of the vendor simulation and analysis tools we had to develop internally. That actually prevented us from using some of the vendor-provided software, which we had access to for years.

SLD: IBM has always trumpeted its proprietary tools as a competitive advantage. Has it gotten too expensive to continue with that?

Barkley: Yes, and that’s no longer the case. At the end of the day we have to make designers productive. There are some conflicting opinions inside of IBM, but from a high level our design executives never considered this stuff proprietary. Over the last five years we’ve been collaborating with Cadence on the advanced routing and chip optimization. We shared technology, design rules and software IP. There’s not a whole lot we consider proprietary now except product road maps. We are not an EDA organization.

Trivedi: From a user perspective, you can see why sharing makes sense. They are creating a subsystem that needs to prototype outside, so they need to have certain standards and well-defined processes, or they need to import things because they can’t do everything themselves. It’s a matter of what the rationale is for you to share. At one time IBM, HP, Intel and TI did everything themselves. Everyone was an IDM (integrated device manufacturer). There was no need to share. The only thing you knew was how many pins it had and there was a data sheet. That was the interface. Now you’re working at a much more granular level. I can only produce libraries, for example, that everyone else uses. Or I produce this IP block and everyone else uses it. Or I develop the software and I need to know your register definition.

Meredith: The financial model is the same, whether you’re collaborating or sharing. People don’t have the money to do everything themselves. They need to be able to collaborate with specialists in some areas. What that requires is the creation of an ecosystem of specialists working together.

Trivedi: The question is really how much control you want to exert and how much you can exert. The more control you can exert, the less need for standards.

Schulz: That also means you’re self-sufficient, from A to Z.

Meredith: But if there are five gorillas in the industry, that means each job is being done five times and their customers are paying for it to be done five times. It’s an inefficient approach to delivering value.

SLD: Let’s roll this back a little bit. When did big companies like IBM and TI stop developing their own tools and begin using off-the-shelf tools? And why?

Schulz: It’s a function of the maturing of the industry. Back in the 1970s at TI we grew our own crystals. As the industry matures, you specialize. And a bad economy forces those issues. In the past, we weren’t at the level of complexity involved now in moving from concept to packaged device. In the past, the IDMs owned their own fabs. Many of them are fab-lite these days. The business is much more fragmented. We have more integration, more features, and more levels of abstraction.

Mackintosh: The issue is integration. Because of that, there’s much more compartmentalization across the chain. The result is that people can only afford to play in certain areas.

SLD: And they need to extract value from those areas.

Mackintosh: Yes. They need to decide which areas to play in and eventually they have to learn to share.