Getting Ready For Stacked Die

EDA vendors are now taking 2.5D and 3D approaches very seriously; lots of pieces are in place but others are still missing.


By Ed Sperling
The move toward stacking of die has always been a series of disconnected pieces and vague promises for the future, but in the past few months the scenario has changed radically—and so has the commentary.

All three of the Big Three EDA vendors now have at least some of the pieces in place for 2.5D stacking and are working on a full 3D flow. Two of the biggest FPGA vendors, Altera and Xilinx, have rolled out 2.5D prototypes. The big foundries have developed processes and interposer technology. And IP vendors are beginning to talk about how IP will have to be characterized to work effectively in stacked-die configurations.

Unanimous vote of confidence
Possibly the most dramatic change has been at Synopsys, which has been vague about stacked die for the past couple of years as it tried to sort out where the issues were and where the opportunities will be.

“For some time, the situation has been very foggy,” said Marco Casale-Rossi, product marketing manager for implementation platforms at Synopsys. “We decided to let things settle to understand the main directions, and believe that over the last 18 months we have understood where mainstream will be—2.5D with an interposer. It will be a number of die, side by side, communicating through an interposer and with the outside world through a TSV.”

Synopsys has decided to focus in three areas: a complete solution for implementation and verification; an evolutionary 2.5D to 3D flow that builds on what already exists; and an R&D commitment with customers and research groups to solve whatever problems may come up in the future.

“Extraction will be very important,” Casale-Rossi said. “We need to take into account a number of new elements such as microbumps, TSVs and interposers. And historically, EDA tools have been designed to deal with one process technology at a time. Now we’ve got bricks manufactured using different process technologies and the rules are different depending on the die.”

EDA’s next big thing
Synopsys isn’t alone in trying to predict where the pain points and the opportunities will be. Both Cadence and Mentor Graphics threw their support behind stacked die over the past couple of years, and Cadence has been working on system-in-package since the beginning of the millennium. So far it appears that the opportunity is large enough and broad enough that there isn’t much overlap.

Cadence has built its 2.5D suite from its SiP tools, which were introduced in in 2007 at a time when the market was still focused on planar ASIC solutions. At that point, the company was divided over whether stacked die would really be an opportunity going forward. There is far less doubt these days that it was the right choice.

“The big question as we got into 3D was whether we build separate tools or use the same tools,” said Samta Bansal, senior product marketing for SoC Realization at Cadence. “We did need new layout tools because of the new electrical features—TSVs and microbumps. The analysis tools also have to be able to comprehend the new constraints, which are thermal and mechanical. And we needed new models and tools with respect to microbumps, and had to make sure the current tools understand the new dimensions.”

She said TSVs are similar to vias, but still different enough to require changes in the tools. And floor-planning requires understanding of placement in a stack to optimize behavior. But she noted that what customers discovered they really needed were tools for packaging.

“Customers that are developing 2.5D are looking at this one of two ways,” she said. “One is a package-driven flow, where the interposer is an extension of the package substrate. The other is an IC-driven flow, where as you go along you have more TSVs and more IC-centric routers. But for both of them, 3D stacking is a combination of digital, custom (analog/mixed signal) and the package.”

A 2.5D stack. Source: STMicroelectronics and Cadence

Mentor Graphics likewise has been extremely active in 2.5D, with a long-range view of 3D stacking, focusing in particular on both test and manufacturability.

“Several factors need to be addressed,” said Steve Pateras, product marketing director for Mentor Graphics’ silicon test products. “One is known good die. How good is the testing before you put chips in a package? Most times you test chips after they’re already in the package, but with 2.5D and 3D the yield goes down as you increase the number of die.”

A second issue involves I/O testing—or more accurately, the lack of testing—which takes on new meaning in a stacked die. In stacked die, it’s imperative to test the I/O before the die are packaged because many times it will not be testable after they’re already in the package.

Pateras said one of the approaches being talked about is wafer on wafer stacking to reduce costs, but that makes it particularly hard to test. He said the better approach is die-to-wafer stacking, using a base wafer with everything else stacked on top for greater control and better yield. But that also creates another problem.

“When you stack heterogeneous die in a stack, there is no standard for communication between the die,” he noted. “We’ve solved one problem, which is memory stacked on logic. But we need to develop a 3D test standard and standards for embedded self test.”

On the manufacturing side, Mentor has modified its DFM tools for 2.5D and 3D verification. And most experts believe existing ESL models can be relatively easily tweaked.

What’s still needed
It’s easy to forget that 2.5D and 3D are evolutionary steps with possibly game-changing impacts. While some EDA tools have always been offered well in advance of the mainstream, they are typically behind the chip design teams working at the leading edge of Moore’s Law. At 20nm and beyond, the cost of making chips has become so enormous that leading-edge companies are building upward. And as they do so, they are finding some pieces are missing that will need to be filled in.

“The first thing that’s missing involves the temperature issue,” said Ghislain Kaiser, CEO of Docea Power. “When you stack die together you’re putting more power into a package, whether it’s 2.5D or 3D. You have to manage that. Many times there is no dissipation problem, but you need to have tools to make sure. You need to be able to analyze the dynamic power profile, and right now it’s impossible to make a link between the software and dissipation when you run actual software on the chip. The best you can do is a simple profile.”

One of the great benefits of stacked die, in addition to not having to move analog designs to the next process node, is increased flexibility and options for designers. Teams can stack different memories in different places and they can move functionality from one die to another to improve performance or lower power or both.

“With that freedom you need to do more exploration,” said Kaiser. “But you may have too many degrees of freedom. You need to be able to optimize different chips along price, performance and power. And you need more accuracy. The gate-level tools are not 100% accurate.”

That’s easier said than done, however. There are no standards in the IP world that would allow an accurate comparison between one piece of IP and another. Frequently they are not even measured the same way by different vendors. Moreover, they can vary significantly with different usage scenarios.

That’s typically where standards fit in. Cadence’s Bansal said the foundation to enable 2.5D and 3D is clear, but there needs to be a seamless and consistent way to integrate digital, AMS and the package. “If the routing is not optimized, for example, you may end up with several layers of interposer. That will make the chip much more expensive.”