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Is The Fabless Semiconductor Ecosystem at Risk?

Is The Fabless Semiconductor Ecosystem at Risk?
by Daniel Nenni on 11-18-2012 at 6:00 pm

 Ever since the failed Intel PR stunt where Mark Bohr suggested that the fabless semiconductor ecosystem was collapsing I have been researching and writing about it. The results will be a book co-authored by Paul McLellan. You may have noticed the “Brief History of” blogs on SemiWiki which basically outline the book. If not, start with “A Brief History of Semiconductors”. In finding the strengths of the fabless semiconductor ecosystem I also discovered possible weaknesses.

Deep collaboration with partners and customers is the current mantra we hear at every conference. TSMC even spelled it out at the most recent OIP Forum last month: At 40nm partners and customers started design work when the PDK was release 0.5, at 28nm design work started at PDK 0.1, at 20nm design work started at PDK .05, and 16nm will start at PDK .01. The problem with this is that the earlier the collaboration the more sensitive the data is and this data is being shared with partners and customers who also work with competing foundries. It is a double edged sword and the cause of unnecessary bloodshed in our industry.

The only protection this sensitive data has is the NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement) which ranks right up there with toilet paper in our industry. One of the things I do as a consultant for emerging fabless, EDA and IP companies is help with NDAs. My least favorite is the 3-way NDA where the customer, the EDA vendor, and the foundry all have to sign it. How do you control that information flow?

NDAs have evolved over the years and the recent ones are much more detailed and have some serious legal repercussions but who actually reads them besides me and the lawyers?

The problem is that the EDA industry is very small and we all know each other. Industry people regularly gather at local pubs, coffee houses, and conferences and things tend to slip out. There is also an EDA gossip website that has no respect for sensitive data covered under NDAs.

So you have to ask yourself what is a foundry to do? How do you allow early access to your secret recipes without it being leaked to your competitors? Just some ideas:

Buy an EDA company: I suggested to GLOBALFOUNDRIES in the early days that they tap their oil reserves and buy Cadence. Imagine the seamless tool flow a foundry could create today if they had full control of the tools and information flow. Also imagine the fabless semiconductor industry growth potential if EDA tools were free, like FPGAs, design starts would multiply like bunny rabbits!

Limit the number of EDA companies you do business with:This is my personal nightmare. To cut costs and increase security a foundry would only work closely with the top 2 EDA companies. Granted this would kill emerging EDA companies and stunt the growth and innovation of EDA but it could happen. It would also increase the costs of EDA tools thus killing design starts.

Legal training for all semiconductor ecosystem employees: Use the recent insider trading case law. People are doing serious jail time for leaking Intel, AMD, and Apple financial information. Spend the time to educate your employees on NDAs and focus on controlling the information flow. A couple of hours of prevention could prevent years of incarceration.

If you have other ideas lets discuss it here and I will make sure it is read by the keepers of the secret semiconductor recipes. We have some serious challenges ahead that will require even deeper collaboration so lets be proactive and protect the industry that feeds us.

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