SAN FRANCISCO — The Internet has fundamentally changed the way we do business, making the world flatter and leveling the playing field for many.
But how much have SoC designers exploited the power of the Internet? Not so much, according to Jack Harding, co-founder, president, and CEO of eSilicon.
Surely the emergence of design service companies like eSilicon has eliminated many of the hassles of managing design and manufacturing in the backend for many integrated device manufacturers (IDMs) and fabless chip companies. But that's only half the story, says Harding, for a company like eSilicon, whose original mission was to automate the entire chip development process.
As Step 2 of the company's business development, eSilicon rolled out two new online tools with which designers can explore design and delivery options. The company showed them off last week at the Design Automation Conference in San Francisco.
One is a tool called IP MarketPlace, through which users can configure eSilicon-designed, compilable SRAM IP blocks. SoC (system on chip) designers can use it to browse memory configurations to determine the best power, performance, or area fit for a particular SoC design.
Another is a GDSII portal. GDSII is a database file format for data exchange in ICs. The new portal enables SoC designers to explore various options for taping out to foundries' processes. They can compare the cost involved in different nodes, packaging, testing, and delivery, generating a "price-guaranteed cost estimate" for designing a new chip, says Harding.
"Kayak" for IC designers
True to the online world, SoC designers will now be able to make such front-end design decisions online "untouched by human hands" -- without even talking to a single person (for price negotiations) or making a financial commitment.
In essence, these new Web-based tools developed for SoC designers are equivalent to what Kayak is to consumers when travel shopping.
Harding told us, "Our industry built the Internet, and continues to develop solutions that enable cloud services. But I don't think we use the Internet enough."
Harding believes his company's new online tools will accelerate the adoption of Internet commerce for SoC designers.
SoC designers of big semiconductors -- such as Qualcomm, Broadcom, and Marvell -- might remain skeptical of such tools, however. When asked about eSilicon's GDSII portal, Philip Poulidis, vice president of the Internet of Things business unit at Marvell, said he's intrigued. But he added that these tools don't fit companies like Marvell, whose well negotiated deals with foundries are already in place.
Bet big on IoT SoCs
Other industry observers note that for tools like these to take off, more design starts are needed -- which explains why eSilicon is hungrily watching growth rates in the IoT market.
Harding suspects that small to midsized fabless companies planning to get into the IoT chip market might push the adoption of online tools. "IoT SoCs aren't particularly complicated. But those SoCs will be greatly affected by the cost of IP, process nodes, packaging, and testing."
When there are thousands of possible permutations in design, the hitch is that chip designers often don't know the actual cost of a new SoC until the design is done, says Harding, who contends that one needs such information up front. "You can't afford to make decisions out of personal preferences."
Starting new online businesses -- especially in new fields -- takes a leap of faith. When asked how eSilicon actually makes money by offering online tools for free, Harding told us, "I have no idea. And that's what I told the board of our company." However, one point is absolutely clear: "I didn't want to be the guy who didn't embrace the Internet."
In Harding's mind, his company's online tools are already showing signs of some success.
For starters, eSilicon already has more than 150 employees running quotes in response to customers that want "what if" analyses for their design options. With the online tools, much of that process can be automated.
More important is that since last fall -- when eSilicon launched online a multi-project wafer (MPW) service to trial chip designs -- several hundred companies have taken advantage, producing more than 500 quotes, according to Harding. "These are real leads that we can send our sales people to." Without such online tools, which let eSilicon identify who visited the site and used the tool, the company wouldn't have known these potential customers even existed.
When SoC design costs too much, innovation shuts down, Harding insists. The industry needs tools that can save millions of dollars. Harding makes his case bluntly: "Anyone who wouldn't use tools for free is a fool."
— Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent, EE Times