Experts At The Table: IP Integration Hurdles

First of three parts: Understanding power and proximity; defining quality; consolidation vs. startups; the real value of IP changes.

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By Ed Sperling
Low-Power Engineering sat down to discuss IP integration issues with Ken Brock, senior staff product marketing manager for logic libraries in Synopsys’ Solutions Group; Kalar Rajendiran, senior director of marketing at eSilicon; Mike Gianfagna, vice president of marketing at Atrenta; and Jim McCanny, CEO of Altos Design Automation. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.

LPE: What is the big issue in IP these days?
Brock: Quality, quality and quality. There are people wanting to use it out of the box and it has to save them a significant amount of time and effort, or else they can build it themselves. It has to follow the function and specification that’s there, and it has to be robust. We don’t live in a perfect world, of course. The silicon does have variation, and it’s getting worse at every node. Getting something to work the first time and everytime is a challenge. That’s the big issue.
Rajendiran: Quality is obviously important, but the high-level issue is the disconnect between the users of IP and the builders of IP. Customers want a certain thing from a technical or a business perspective and suppliers want it a different way. The fact that market cycles are becoming shorter has aggravated that situation even more.
There has been a lot of consolidation over the past two years, which has actually helped things. But disaggregation means that everyone wants to start their own IP company, and they all try to go too broad, so quality suffers. That is really the big issue.
Gianfagna: We could have had this discussion 15 years ago. In the 1990s IP re-use was a big problem. This problem has been around a long time, but somehow in the past year or two it’s hit an inflection point and it’s now more serious.

LPE: Is that because more companies are using off-the-shelf IP?
Gianfagna: It’s more than that. A tipping point happened in the last year or two. We went from chip designs being original work with some IP integrated to a chip design being 90% IP, and hopefully you pick it right. Now the IP quality issues really start to bite you. If you pick bad bricks to build the building it falls down.
Brock: The timing you picked is right. Something changed in the past 24 months. Wafer shipments went to about a third of what they were. Everything dried up. But a lot of the people running the fabless companies and the IDMs needed to scale back. They began to really consider outsourcing the IP they had been talking about for 10 years because that wasn’t their value add.
Gianfagna: Our industry always changes in the bad times.
McCanny: Those points are valid. There’s also shrinking time to market and low power. People can live with the methodology they had for IP re-use. It wasn’t perfect but they could make it work. But with low power coming along in all the portable devices they can’t do that anymore. People need their IP models in a certain way at a certain voltage. Voltage is not linear or predictable, like timing is. Power effects are non-linear. So all of a sudden people are demanding all these different views and corners, and it’s impossible for the IP provider to ensure quality across such a wide range that customers want these days. It used to be a chip had a single voltage. Now you want to play around with voltages depending on the application. Those have made the problem more acute than what it has been in the past.

LPE: IP has to be both power-aware and proximity-aware. How do you deal with that?
Brock: That’s true. And on top of that there are many different ways of doing things. Smart phones get hung up all the time. You have to take out the battery and then start it again. It doesn’t know what power mode it’s supposed to be in. At least ‘off’ is a known state. All the other states have to be simulated and retained in the models we create.
McCanny: The compelling vision of IP was that it was a black box. You didn’t need to know all the details about it. You could plug it in and it would work. You didn’t have to have core expertise with an interface, for example. Now it may work under a certain set of environmental conditions, but it might not work if it’s next to this. Or maybe it will only work at this voltage if it isn’t switching over from another voltage. All of that brings pressure on the acquirers of IP to become experts in the IP they’re getting. So will the pendulum start swinging the other way?
Gianfagna: That raises an interesting point about whether the little guy is destined to fail. If I have a piece of IP checked out for a certain set of applications, voltage domains, frequency and configuration, the IP provider says it works here and therefore it should work everywhere. It doesn’t work everywhere, and that’s a problem. So are people going to demand from their IP supplier that it be checked and validated across a broad set of applications and certified by someone—most likely the supplier of the IP? If that happens there will be a few very large, multinational, multibillion-dollar suppliers of IP. It takes a lot of resources to stand behind something with that much validation. It’s not easy to do.
Rajendiran: Even if it’s a big company with a lot of resources, they still have to pick the first few customers and make sure all the use cases are addressed. They can’t address the broad market because of economical reasons and bandwidth. And the one they support initially won’t allow them to support everyone else because they’ll lose their competitive edge. So there’s a built-in conflicting requirement. I don’t think everyone will try to build it all themselves. There’s a ceiling on the cost, and by taking on everything yourself the only way to do that is to increase your resources. The market won’t allow that to happen. Collaboration will be the key. And it won’t just be two companies. With the soft IP you want to collaborate with the end customer. With the hard IP you want to work with someone who tapes out designs. They need to understand all the IP blocks from different vendors. The ones implementing that day in and day out are the ones who understand that best.

LPE: All of this depends on a much more tightly integrated supply chain. How realistic is that and who’s going to drive it?
Rajendiran: As we go through these cycles, one thing that has consistently gone in one direction is the focus on performance, area, and now power. There are various ways to address that. If 3D stacking takes off, people are going to leave certain blocks at 40nm because they know it works. You get the benefits of cost and you can integrate it quickly. We have gotten so much more performance out of these chips we don’t need anymore. There are several things changing to make this happen. One is consolidation. The second is the TSV (through-silicon via). And the third is that if you mess up at 28nm it’s a much bigger deal than in the past. Collaboration will happen.
McCanny: The large IP companies can only collaborate with so many of their customers. One of the perceived advantages of small companies is that they have a particular expertise in a small area, so they get 90% of the IP from other companies and add their own expertise. We’d all like to see that. We’ve seen some small startup chip companies get picked up by companies like Apple. It would be bad for the industry if we couldn’t serve that market. But there are definitely challenges because until you get to a certain size you can’t get enough collaboration. Our initial mission was to build models for IP providers. Now we’re starting to go more with IP users. They say, ‘I’ve got these models from different sources. I don’t know how to put them together, but at least I can run a tool to help me understand whether these models make sense for the process and voltage I’m using.’ That requires more cost on their side and to get more in depth with the IP to understand why certain anomalies occur and why things only work at certain voltages. It’s not easy and the problem is getting more difficult rather than simpler.