Fabless: April 2008 Archives

Late yesterday, Forbes reported that Apple has decided to buy boutique chipmaker PA Semi. So, the conference call later today where Apple announces its results for the second quarter of 2008 is going to be interesting. And there will be a bunch of silicon suppliers wondering what's going wrong for them.

Discarding the possibility that Apple has decided the move to Intel, and its rejection of PA's PowerPC processor in 2006, has been an awful mistake and it suddenly needs to press the architecture reset button, the move by Apple suggests that the company is not all that happy with the shape of today's integrated circuit (IC) business.

One possibility is that Apple has decided it needs more in-house chip designers and buying PA was a quick way to staff up. That's not unusual in this business: it's a surprisingly common way of getting hold of people who can design the analogue circuits that most electronics engineers fear to touch. Even after you've bought in a bunch of processors and memory, there are other places a computer maker can use experienced IC designers to get an edge on its competitors. You don't see that much in the PC business but it's a lot more common in places like the phone market.

There was a telling moment in the conference call hosted by Altera ostensibly to talk about its 1Q08 results but also drop in a few hints about an upcoming family of programmable logic chips.

Historically, Altera and market leader Xilinx have taken lumps out of each other as they vied to be first onto each manufacturing process. But something changed at the 65nm process node. Xilinx was quick to get its high-end parts out on the 65nm technology, but nowhere near as quick as the company's claims over having first silicon on that process. Altera was behind but took the opposite tack: putting its cheaper Cyclones onto TSMC's 65nm process first. Then it all went quiet. The launch of the 45nm process went off with both Altera and Xilinx being uncharacteristically quiet. It began to look as though a kind of chip that had become the foundries' banker for early silicon had suddenly fallen off Moore's Law.

It seems that the programmable-logic makers are still in the running, just not as quick to jump on a new process as they used to be. And it seems that Altera wasn't aware just how advanced its next process would be until TSMC decided it would lop another 5nm off - in name at least.

Sometimes, small deals can wind up changing the shape of a market. The deal between Blaze DFM and TSMC that has been gestating for close to a year is possibly one of them: it recalls the giant leap of faith that Artisan took when it came up with the "free library" idea.

Basically, Blaze and TSMC have cut a deal that will see the Taiwanese foundry use a version of the Blaze MO tool to alter transistors in a layout to make them less leaky just prior to manufacturing. The idea is not new and fairly simple: you make the transistor gate longer on logic paths that don't need to be fast. This typically shifts the threshold voltage up, which cuts leakage. STMicroelectronics has been offering the same sort of modifications using different logic cells. What is different is the nature of the deal between Blaze and TSMC and what it could mean for the whole DFM business.

Instead of trying to sell tools on a per-seat basis for something like a couple of hundred thousand dollars – the regular EDA business model – TSMC will host the tool. Although the companies will not talk about the money side of the deal, it does look broadly similar to the Artisan free-library model, where the foundry paid a royalty to Artisan for each chip made and charged a bit more for each chip to the customer.

For Jacob Jacobsson, CEO of Blaze DFM, this approach, in a way, opens up money that isn't available to the EDA tools vendors. "EDA has a had a more or less stagnant $3bn budget for as long as we can remember. It is more attractive for us to align with the manufacturing side of the business."