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Intel’s foundry foray and its influence on the EDA, IP industries


Intel continues to bolster its foundry business while making a concerted effort to get the company back on track in offering leading-edge silicon processes to fabless customers. Like IC design, the EDA and IP industries are an intrinsic part of the IC manufacturing ecosystem; and fabs spearhead it. That begs a fundamental question: How will Intel’s fab business influence these two significant semiconductor industry segments?

Intel says an open, thriving ecosystem is vital for its broader IDM 2.0 strategy. So, the Santa Clara, California-based chipmaker has launched a new initiative to empower its ecosystem partners and foundry customers: the Intel Foundry Services (IFS) Accelerator. “The IFS Accelerator is an alliance to provide access to design services, IP, and tools and flows to enable next-generation ICs,” says Randhir Thakur, president of Intel Foundry Services.

To accelerate innovation, Thakur added, this ecosystem alliance program aims to bring together the brightest minds and the broadest capabilities to deliver a seamless interface with Intel’s process and packaging technologies.

Figure 1 Several EDA toolmakers and semiconductor IP suppliers have joined the IFS Accelerator program. Source: Ansys

So, as competition heats up in the fab business, what kind of ecosystem-level innovations can we expect in the near future? According to Laurie Balch, research director at Pedestal Research, more competition in an industry usually equals greater product stability and certainty for customers. “The semiconductor ecosystem will undoubtedly benefit from Intel’s foundry business.”

For a start, she said, Intel’s foray into the foundry model will boost integration across the disparate elements of IC design and manufacturing. “What’s especially interesting about Intel becoming a foundry is that it opens the door to all sorts of integrated service offerings because Intel is so well-versed in design-through-manufacturing technology.”

Balch added that though Intel has always partnered with the EDA tool vendors, manufacturing equipment companies, IP suppliers, and other semiconductor technology businesses, such alliances and partnerships will certainly grow and become more valuable.

To make a sense of it all, let’s first take a closer look at how the EDA tool domain is likely to evolve with this significant boost in the foundry services business. After all, Intel has committed to embracing the industry’s best across EDA, equipment, and research realms.

Intel fab’s impact on EDA

As fab services are being taken to a new level with Intel joining the fray, what kind of shift may we see in the EDA industry’s relationship with fabs? Specifically, as Balch pointed out, when Intel is very closely entwined with the EDA business as both a top-tier customer and development partner of EDA vendors.

Moreover, Intel has internal CAD teams and even sells some niche EDA tools itself. Not surprisingly, therefore, Intel getting into the foundry game is mostly a relief for the IC development community and EDA vendors.

However, according to Michael Buehler-Garcia, VP of product management for Calibre Design Solutions at Siemens Digital Industries Software, the introduction of each new process node will come with its own set of challenges to physics and design complexity and will increase the number of new design rules. “To deal with these challenges will require even greater collaboration and communication among EDA, IP and fab companies to ensure that IP is top quality and signoff is ready for every new foundry process in time for those first tapeouts in each new process node.”

Figure 2 EDA firms provide DFM tools to fabs to help them bring up new processes faster and test tools to identify problems if they arise to further improve yield. Source: Siemens Digital Industries Software

So, what will this shift require? Garcia says that greater and earlier collaboration, including sharing the IP data as early as possible. “That will benefit all three in helping their mutual customers to introduce innovations faster.”

Therefore, in addition to providing signoff, DFM and test tools, Siemens EDA also offers new tools for embedded analytics. That’s essentially when you are able to insert monitoring IP into a design, much like you would do with the built-in self-test (BIST) IP. “Embedded analytics IP goes beyond inserting IP for post-silicon test equipment to read and spot problems,” Garcia said. “It enables companies to monitor the health and security of the IC and the system it’s powering over the IC’s operating lifetime.”

That, in turn, will enable design engineers to detect problems in the field, schedule better preventative maintenance, and develop next-generation ICs and end-products. “We believe that there will be ways to share this silicon performance data with our foundry partners to enable them to further tune and improve their manufacturing processes,” Garcia added.

The above information about EDA’s trajectory in a new fab order shows the presence of another critical element: semiconductor design IP. Like EDA, the new fab buildout can significantly influence the IP industry.

IP in the new fab order

The current IC manufacturing model in which fabs collaborate with IP suppliers is quite flexible. So, if there are more fabs, the need for IP to support a growing number of process nodes will become even more critical. Over the last decade, as Arteris IP’s chief operating officer Laurent Moll noted, the core semiconductor DNA remained in place when the number of fabs decreased. “Therefore, the IP ecosystem will be able to scale easily with the growth in fabs.”

The IP companies either provide protocol-related computational excellence or highly-optimized PHYs in close collaboration with foundries. With an increase in the number of fabs, collaboration between various IP providers might also increase, Moll said. “A broader range of foundry process nodes to service will potentially result in some IP providers having partial portfolios augmenting them with partners to provide complete solutions for customers.”

Regarding what’s needed to cope with this shift in the IP industry, like Siemens Software’s Garcia, Moll’s message is clear: Collaboration, collaboration, and collaboration. “This is something that has already started to accelerate, particularly below 28 nm, with optimized IP and tuned EDA products and flows being as important as the new node.” He added that this trend will only accelerate to ensure that the core functionality of system-on-chips (SoCs) meets the ever-growing requirements of innovative electronic products.

Figure 3 Production of large SoCs is raising the bar for greater collaboration between fabs and IP suppliers. Source: Arteris IP

Here, it’s important to note that the EDA and IP suppliers already work with partners on the manufacturing side. However, because of a lopsided foundry industry that a relatively few players in Asia have dominated, IP companies in particular have been able to be somewhat selective about favoring partnerships with particular foundries.

“With Intel as a major foundry player, EDA and IP vendors will be forced to build close relationships with more foundry partners,” said Pedestal Research’s Balch. On the other hand, she noted, it also presents Intel with significant opportunities to grow its own targeted IP and EDA businesses that might threaten existing companies in those industries. “In the long term, though, it will actually benefit the entire semiconductor ecosystem by increasing healthy competition and fostering technology advancement.”

IC ecosystem advancement

Arteris IP’s Moll shares the optimism with Balch. “With more fabs coming online and heterogenous compute becoming the new norm for high-end SoCs, we might see more collaboration across the fabs,” he said. “That will lead to faster and more efficient integration of silicon from multiple sources into one product.”

So, while Intel is trying to create a new foundry culture, its liaison with EDA and IP players will be crucial. These two adjacent industries are also likely to benefit from Intel’s extraordinary spending in the fab business. But, more importantly, as noted in this article, greater collaboration among foundry, EDA, and IP industries can lead to invaluable ecosystem innovations.

That, in the long run, will benefit IC developers as well.

Majeed Ahmad, editor-in-chief of EDN and Planet Analog, has covered the electronics design industry for more than two decades.

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