The Latest in Chip Design


EFY catches up with four EDA firms to get their views on the latest in-chip design. Saugat Sen, vice president, Cadence; Wesley Ryder, worldwide technical director, Mentor Graphics; Sushil Gupta, managing director, Atrenta and Vinayakam Subramanian, technical manager, ANSYS, share their views on topics ranging from the latest transistor structures and their impact on EDA tools, to solving ASIC design challenges, important EDA concerns in chip design and the latest trends in this field.


Q. What has been the impact of the latest transistor structures on EDA tools?
Saugat Sen: FinFET is the latest transistor structure and is amongst the most radical technologies developed in the semiconductor industry in the last few decades. This technology offers power and performance advantages over the existing planar transistors. However, it requires new design rules and tools, and hence, presents a challenging task for the designer, especially at 20nm, 14nm and 10nm nodes. The device level models for FinFETs have now largely stabilised. The 3D elements of device extraction have been completed and calibrated.

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Wesley Ryder: Advanced processes at 20nm and beyond, and the arrival of FinFET technology, bring with them the promise of significant performance and power consumption benefits—especially regarding leakage of power. Double patterning (DP) is a technique used to help overcome the constraints of the current 193nm wavelength lithography. The use of DP adds significant complexity and cost to IC design and manufacturing that goes beyond the basic cost of extra masks and manufacturing steps. With DP, any slight misalignment of the two masks can cause significant variability in the parasitics resulting from adjacent geometries.

Sushil Gupta: There are basically two forces at play here. On the one hand, advanced transistor structures present new challenges in areas such as power (leakage), process corner behaviour (variability) and lithography (printability). These require detailed characterisation of the transistor structures in order to develop models that can accurately reflect behaviour all the way through the design flow. On the other hand, the physical size of these structures gives rise to higher density and, thus, higher complexity for system-on-chip (SoC) design.

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Vinayakam SUbramaniam: With the advent of FinFET technology, EDA power integrity analysis tools need to support the new transistor structures/parameters, like fins in the advanced SPICE models for accurate SPICE modelling/characterisation. Electro-migration (EM) rules are also becoming complex, and EDA tools need to support these complex EM rules for 16nm FinFET designs. Increased power density and lower supply voltage will cause reduction in the noise margin, making power integrity analysis more critical.

Q. What are some of the lesser known challenges encountered while designing ASICs?
Saugat Sen: ASICs are increasingly being used in consumer electronics where low power is one of the most critical factors. At nodes 45nm and lower, the issue is leakage, and to address this, designers use power-reduction techniques such as power gating, multi-supply voltage and clock gating. At lower nodes, due to the interconnect delays, timing closure between synthesis and layout presents a huge challenge for design engineers. The signal integrity, especially at advanced nodes, is affected by interconnect parasitics. The layout extraction method is one of the popular tools used by ASIC designers to overcome the issue.

Wesley Ryder: Issues like electrostatic discharge (ESD) and multiple power domain checks are high on the list of complex new geometrical and electrical verification requirements for modern SoCs. These requirements can be best described with a topological view rather than a device pin-to-net relation. In complex designs, sophisticated ESD protection device structures have to be verified. Usually, these structures are formed from a group of devices to construct better ESD prevention circuitry. Advanced programmable electrical rule checking (PERC) helps overcome these challenges. On the topological side, this allows the user to identify circuit elements that make up the ESD protection or low-power-related structures.

Sushil Gupta: I would say one of the most challenging aspects is successful IP selection and reuse. For many designs today, over 80 per cent of the chip is composed of previously designed IP, either legacy code or internally/externally sourced code. There are plenty of stories about schedule delays and design-closure challenges for these types of designs. In many cases, the root cause of those issues was improper selection of IP blocks, or selection of IP blocks with built-in ‘problems’ that get discovered too late in the design process. A more focussed and systematic approach to IP management and re-use would help a lot.

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Vinayakam SUbramaniam: Reliability aspects like ESD and electro-migration tend to be overlooked, especially with respect to timing analyses. As we move to advanced technology nodes, electro-migration becomes more important due to degraded EM limits. From an ESD point of view, we see current density violations happening more frequently during ESD discharge events, leading to metal breakdown inside the chip.

Q. What are the latest concerns for EDA players vis-a-vis chip design?
Saugat Sen: One of the biggest challenges EDA companies face today is the accelerated pace of advanced node introduction. The pace of movement from 20nm, 16nm/14nm and on to 10nm is very challenging, from both the technology development standpoint and from the deployment angle. Gaining early deployment experience via test chips with major partners has become an indispensable part of the new node
deployment-planning process.

Wesley Ryder: It is quite hard to think of concerns around EDA and chip design. Looking back, technology advances always created concerns but clever designers and software engineers continued to overcome them, and there is no reason why they will not continue to do so in the future. Fostering and finding top talent is always high on Mentors’ agenda. Tools are important, but it is the people and relationships that make the real difference in a company.

Sushil Gupta: Complexity management and successful IP re-use are the two major concerns that are high on the list of most EDA vendors. Both these concerns can cause substantial issues for a system-on-chip (SoC) project concept, and hence, EDA players should be focussing on these issues.

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Vinayakam SUbramaniam: Chip design cycles are getting shorter while the chips are getting more complex. Add to this the impact of the package and PCB on the chip’s performance, and it becomes clear that first-time system success (chip+package+PCB) is critical.

Q. Can you talk about some of the latest trends that you have witnessed in this field, which you believe are here to stay?
Saugat Sen: Re-use and use of third-party IP have become standard business practices for many semiconductor companies, and this has led to greater awareness about the importance of IP re-use strategies. The critical factors driving IP re-use are two time-to-market concerns and the rising complexity of SoCs in production today.

Wesley Ryder: Focus on low power is a trend that has come under the spotlight and is certainly here to stay. An increasing number of processing engines on SOCs drive the need for more power compared to the ideal—a topic deeply discussed in the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS) documents. With multiple devices placed on boards, it is common to find PCBs consuming several hundred watts and systems much more.

Sushil Gupta: IP re-use is here to stay. The IP market will need to go through some maturity for it to continue to grow, however. The movement to higher levels of abstraction (to deal with complexity) is also real and growing. The choice of a place and route tool used to have a substantial impact on a project’s success. Going forward, the tools used for register transfer language (RTL) and architectural design, as well as the choices for IP, will have the biggest impact.

Vinayakam SUbramaniam: A semiconductor company recently published a study showing how distributed package modelling improves the accuracy of on-chip power integrity analysis, leading to better chip-package co-design and co-simulation. We also see the increasing impact of dynamic voltage drop on timing, leading to clock jitter issues on-chip. Another trend we see is that more people are moving to design-dependent power grids.