| Paper Submitted by Jack Harding, president and CEO, eSilicon |


A major shift in the application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) market has occurred over the past five years. The forces at play are most evident at the top end of the market, but they will impact the entire customer base and supply chain over time. It is well-known that Moore’s Law is finally slowing down. The implications of this trend are driving complexity increases in ASIC design across new dimensions. One can no longer rely on a faster clock to deliver the next-generation product.

Instead, substantial amounts of integration are happening at the chip and package levels. More memory, more processors all aimed at increasing throughput through parallelism and dedicated hardware accelerators. The result is that an ASIC is now typically multiple chips integrated in a complex 2.5D package. This is the new definition of ASIC.

The consumers of these new ASICs are changing as well. System companies are now leveraging ASIC technology as the core enabler to bring new products to market. These new products critically rely on the ASIC to deliver its intended capability and performance at the system level. The requirement to deliver an ASIC’s performance in the context of the system is the new definition of ASIC success.

We will call this new definition of ASIC and ASIC success collectively “ASIC 2020.” In this piece we will explore ASIC 2020 trends, what they mean to the customer, the semiconductor ecosystem and the overall semiconductor industry.

A couple of examples of what constitutes an ASIC 2020 design would be helpful. The data center is a good place to start. As more hyperscale data centers come on line from the likes of Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook, there is a strategic imperative for these facilities to deliver the highest performance and lowest power in a scalable, flexible manner. This often means specialized hardware accelerators and artificial intelligence (AI) technology to support the kind of workloads required by the rather diverse customer base.

Figure 1. Data center switching ASIC

Famously, Google has led the pack in this arena with their Tensor Processing Unit, or TPU. This device is an ASIC used to accelerate machine learning workloads. The TPU was first announced in 2016. Since then, there have been several new generations of the design, including one that is optimized for the cloud. eSilicon has worked on specialized data center ASICs as well. Figure 1 summarizes one such design that is currently moving into production.

Figure 2. 5G infrastructure chip

The current 5G build-out that is occurring worldwide is another place to look for ASIC 2020 designs. The move from 4G to 5G wireless infrastructure promises to revolutionize the way we communicate and create entire new markets associated with trends such as internet of things (IoT) and autonomous vehicles. In turn, all the data generated by these new applications will ultimately be processed in cloud data centers, so these two trends are indeed linked. For those of you old enough to appreciate the historical reference, think of the move from 4G to 5G as similar to the move from dial-up to broadband communication. This is also an area eSilicon has some experience in. Figure 2 summarizes a rather large ASIC that we are bringing into production.

Technology enablers
When a new trend emerges, the question is often asked, “Why now?” The answer is usually a combination of consumer expectations, software advances and technology breakthroughs. In the case of ASIC 2020, it’s a combination of all these forces. One could debate if companies like Google and Facebook caused consumer expectations to shift, or if they supported a shift that was already underway. Either way, social media and always-on data access are here to stay.

The software aspects of these changes are actually not all that new. I’ll cover that in the next section. The hardware-related innovations are very real and actually enable the software to perform, for the first time, at human-interaction-class speeds. Some of these breakthroughs include:

    • Semiconductor process advances: Innovation primarily around FinFET, or 3D transistor structures, leads the way here. While this technology is expensive and presents a daunting design rule book, it delivers the requisite power and performance to support advanced applications. The possible move from FinFET to gate-all-around structures at 5nm and below promises to up the game even more, with extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV) reducing the number of pages in the design rule book.
    • 2.5/3D packaging: The ability to finally integrate multiple devices on a silicon interposer has opened up many new applications. Most notable these days is the use of multiple high bandwidth memory (HBM) stacks with a mission ASIC to facilitate fast access to huge amounts of memory. The HBM standard is evolving to support these advances as well. This is just the beginning. 3D promises heterogeneous stacks of purpose-built known-good-die from various process technologies. Materials science plays an important role here as well. Watch for new technology — organic substrates and even glass interposers.
    • Chiplets: The delivery of small, special-purpose silicon slices is another example of 2.5D design that leverages packaging technology advances. eSilicon has had some experience with high-bandwidth interconnect devices that essentially stitch two chips together to form a larger device.
    • Design tools: All of these hardware-based approaches require new forms of design tool support. Thermal and mechanical stress analysis now becomes important for advanced packaging. Higher performance puts new demands on signal and power integrity. Design rules now have a three-dimensional quality. These are just a few of the challenges we face. I am encouraged by the strong R&D efforts being put forth by our electronic design automation (EDA) partners in these areas.

As mentioned, a lot of the software that is driving ASIC 2020 isn’t new. Neural networks, one of the key drivers for AI applications, have been around a long time. Do your own Google search and you will find references dating back to the 1950s. The same timeline applies for machine learning.

Figure 3. Zycad XP-140 hardware accelerator

There are other contemporary concepts that are not new. Hardware acceleration is one where I can offer some first-hand experience. Today, hardware accelerators are used to offload special-purpose algorithms, typically associated with AI, from general-purpose central processing units (CPUs). The idea is that special-purpose hardware will always produce a more efficient result. If that hardware can be integrated with the overall workload of the system, there is a win from a performance point of view.

In the 1980s and 1990s, I worked for a company called Zycad. This company built products that performed logic and fault simulation on special-purpose, dedicated hardware. The goal was to deliver 10X – 1,000X the performance when compared to state-of-the-art computers running software simulators. In those days, that was typically a Digital Equipment Corporation VAX computer. It should be no surprise that Zycad was a “hardware accelerator” company. This was a market niche served by several competitors.

Zycad’s flagship product was the Logic Evaluator. It was the size of a few refrigerators and indeed delivered simulation performance 10X – 1,000X faster than any general-purpose computer. Zycad also made smaller, desk-side machines intended for a single user. The XP-140, shaped like a large suitcase was one such product and Figure 3 illustrates its form factor. (Interestingly, this device is for sale on eBay.)

Requirements for ASIC 2020
I’ll conclude with an assessment of what’s needed to drive this new ASIC market and the new definition of ASIC success forward.

  • Methodology: A robust chip design methodology is now the entry point, not the end point. The effects of the package and system on the chip must now be considered and analyzed very early in the process if fatal errors are to be avoided. Chip/package/system design is the new bar and design for manufacturing, design for test, signal integrity and power integrity (DFM/DFT/SI/PI) are some of the buzz terms.
  • IP platforms: Best-in-class semiconductor intellectual property (IP) is also merely an entry point for ASIC 2020. Beyond quality and robustness, the collection of IP used in an advanced design must be verified to work together. Integration issues such as metal stack compatibility, testability and control interfaces all need to be worked out ahead of time. The IP must also be customizable relative to its intended use if power, performance and area (PPA) targets are to be met in a reasonable time. We refer to this concept as an IP platform.
  • Pre-verified architecture: Beyond IP platforms, look to your ASIC vendor to provide pre-verified, hardened architectures of how IP can be integrated to solve a particular problem. This concept dramatically reduces integration risks and design time. We call our version of this the ASIC Chassis.
  • Materials expertise: It’s not just about silicon for ASIC 2020. Previously mentioned organic and glass interposers are in the mix and your ASIC vendor needs to understand the implications.
  • Compute infrastructure: The compute resources required for an ASIC 2020 design can be substantial. The requirements expand and contract throughout the design cycle and the ability to deploy the most advanced compute technology is often the margin of victory. All this demands a cloud-based, scalable architecture.
  • A collaborative ecosystem: Perhaps the most important requirement is the ecosystem supporting the overall design project. Advanced designs do not come up smoothly. These designs contain many new technologies and many, many interdependencies. Recall the new definition of ASIC success — deliver an ASIC’s performance in the context of the system. Getting that done takes strong problem-solving skills and relentless collaboration across a well-integrated, system-centric ecosystem. All the members of that ecosystem are invested in the customer’s success. It simply can’t be done any other way.

Final thoughts
eSilicon has spent the last four years developing all the IP, skills and methodology to supply ASIC 2020 class devices. The result is a reliable and predictable source that understands the new definition of ASIC and ASIC success. It’s not your father’s ASIC. We can explain why.

To learn more about eSilicon’s ASIC and IP capabilities, visit https://www.esilicon.com.


Jack Harding, co-founder, president and CEO of eSilicon Corporation, is responsible for eSilicon’s overall leadership, strategy and management. Mr. Harding brings more than 30 years of management experience in the semiconductor industry, spanning the electronic design automation (EDA) and IC sectors. Prior to co-founding eSilicon in 2000, Mr. Harding was the president and CEO of Cadence Design Systems. Mr. Harding entered Cadence upon the acquisition of Cooper & Chyan Technology (CCT), where he served as the president and CEO and was responsible for leading the company to an IPO. Prior to CCT, Mr. Harding served as the executive vice president of Zycad Corporation. Mr. Harding began his career with distinction at IBM. Mr. Harding currently serves on the board of directors of Qorvo (previously RF Micro Devices) and the Global Semiconductor Alliance (GSA). He also serves on the GSA Finance Committee. Mr. Harding holds a Bachelor of Arts in Chemistry and Economics from Drew University and attended the Stern School of Business at New York University.