Santa Cruz, Calif. -- Design-for-manufacturability may be the next big hope for the EDA industry, but the world's largest provider of lithography steppers also wants a piece of the DFM action. ASML Holding NV last week announced its intention to acquire Brion Technologies Inc., an up-and-coming provider of lithography verification and optical proximity correction (OPC) solutions.
In a deal expected to close in the first quarter, ASML (Veldhoven, Netherlands) will pay $270 million in cash to acquire Brion (Santa Clara, Calif.). Brion will continue to support its current offerings in computational lithography, including Tachyon OPC+, a hardware-accelerated OPC solution.
The deal would mark ASML's largest foray into DFM, although not its first; subsidiary ASML MaskTools supplies phase-shift photomask software for leading-edge chip designs. But the acquisition would also put ASML on a collision course with EDA vendors Mentor Graphics Corp. and Synopsys Inc., two large providers of OPC software. As such, it raises questions about whether OPC is best provided by equipment makers or EDA software vendors.
Also left unclear is whether ASML's stepper customers might be pressured to use the Brion OPC solution and whether Brion's OPC tools will adequately support other vendors' steppers, such as those from Nikon, with which Brion recently signed an integration agreement.
"Brion and ASML are very complementary in their respective fields," Eric Meurice, president and chief executive officer of ASML, said during a conference call last week. "Brion will benefit from ASML lithography models and libraries, while ASML will benefit from Brion's capability to predict lithography results, thus enabling the proactive tuning of ASML scanners." ASML and Brion representatives declined interview requests following the conference call.
Brion, according to sources, was a prime acquisition target. The company was apparently up for sale, but many were surprised that a lithography equipment vendor, as opposed to an EDA vendor, sealed the deal. Some also expressed surprise at the price tag paid for the young, privately held supplier, which has approximately 120 employees.
The Brion purchase is a "great acquisition," said analyst Gary Smith, president of Gary Smith EDA. "Brion is one of the half-dozen companies that have traction in the DFY [design-for-yield] market. Since they build hardware, they fit right into ASML's product portfolio."
"There is some synergy" between ASML and Brion, said Klaus Rinnen, an analyst with Gartner Dataquest. Since the stepper market is not growing quickly, he said, DFM is an attractive area for companies such as ASML.
"The question is how to compete with the big EDA vendors who want to play in this space as well," Rinnen said.
At 90 nanometers and below, OPC must be run on every chip before production--and OPC is one of the most computationally demanding parts of the entire IC design-to-manufacturing cycle. For that reason, Brion based its OPC offering on Tachyon, a hardware-accelerated simulation engine previously rolled out for lithography verification. Similarly, Mentor Graphics recently announced a deal with Mercury Computer Systems to provide a Cell-based hardware-accelerated platform for OPC (see Dec. 4, page 1).
Historically, lithography and DFM have been separate and independent. But for the 45-nm node and beyond, lithography simulation and OPC models must be developed in concert, using more than just traditional input lithography parameters. New simulation and modeling inputs must include immersion effects, polarization impacts, and flare and wavefront aberrations.
OPC is traditionally run by mask shops, not chip designers. But DFM startups and major EDA vendors are focusing on making IC layouts more conducive to OPC and on bringing OPC data back into design to provide "silicon accurate" views. Startup Clear Shape Technologies is focusing on such capabilities (see Nov. 27, page 1) .
"It is debatable where OPC belongs; that is still evolving," said Atul Sharan, Clear Shape's president and CEO. "ASML will now compete with Synopsys and Mentor on OPC tools. Ultimately, the OPC tool market will be decided by those who can innovate and look one node ahead."
"By integrating the OPC platform with the scanner hardware, ASML will be competing against open, standards-based solutions provided by EDA companies such as Mentor," said Joe Sawicki, vice president and general manager of Mentor's design-to-silicon division. "We believe history has already determined which approach is best for the industry and customers."
There's no benefit to having a lithography equipment provider sell OPC, said Srini Raghvendra, senior director of market- ing for DFM solutions at Synopsys. "OPC tools require information from the stepper, but this is one-time, low-volume data that can be obtained in a simple encrypted data file," he said. Having OPC tied to tools eases measuring and mitigates the impact of timing and leakage power, he said.
Synopsys has a good working relationship with ASML, and it's too early to know how that will change, Raghvendra said. "We suspect customers will be wary of being pushed toward a particular OPC solution," he said.
EDA provider Magma Design Automation, which recently signed a lithography modeling agreement with Brion, has a much more positive view. "ASML's acquisition of Brion makes sense," said John Lee, general manager of Magma's physical verification business unit. "Brion has created a substantial business in OPC verification, and recently in OPC, by replacing software-based OPC tools."
The Nikon quandary
Aside from EDA vendor competition, ASML's acquisition raises questions about Brion's deal with lithography tool vendor Nikon Corp. (Tokyo). In October, Nikon and Brion inked a partnership in the lithography-enabled DFM space.
During the conference call, Meurice insisted Brion would "continue to support Nikon and Canon [the other major lithography tool supplier], as well as ASML."
But Nikon, surprised by the announcement, is now reevaluating its relationship with Brion, said Bernie Wood, director of marketing for U.S. subsidiary Nikon Precision Inc. (Belmont, Calif.). By buying Brion, ASML is narrowing its DFM focus to a single OPC verification vendor, Wood said. Now, other DFM providers--such as Cadence, Mentor and others--"may have a fear of working with ASML," he said.
Nikon is taking another approach. "We are developing a number of DFM relationships," Wood said. "It makes more sense to work with all DFM vendors, including Mentor, Cadence and Synposys."