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Accelerating Custom Semiconductor Design with Best-in-Class Debugging Tools

Until recently, manufacturing semiconductors was the domain of dedicated chip companies. However, over the past fifteen years or so, technology giants – led by the likes of Apple, Amazon, Google, and Meta – have established in-house silicon design teams and taken advantage of contract fabrication facilities to produce chips tailored to their requirements. What’s more, the appeal of the so-called “fabless” semiconductor business model is growing fast. Adoption is spreading not just in the tech domain, but to verticals such as the automotive industry. OEMs like Tesla, GM, and Ford have all embarked on designing and manufacturing their own system-on-chip (SoC) solutions. Several factors are powering this trend. Perhaps most significantly, enterprises are looking for a competitive edge that can harness the potential of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), high-performance computing (HPC), and cloud computing. Behind the scenes, the latest generation of smart design tools is also fostering semiconductor growth. These tools are speeding and simplifying the process of creating and verifying new design solutions while also mitigating risk and helping more enterprises make the leap from off-the-shelf to bespoke silicon. 

 

The Revolution Starts Here

The roots of the custom semiconductor revolution can be traced back to 2010 when Apple debuted homegrown chips in the iPhone 4. Today, the company employs custom semiconductors throughout its smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Others have followed in Apple’s footsteps, and many more are expected to do so in the next few years. According to Grand View Research, the global market for application-specific integrated circuits (ASIC) will grow from $15.99 billion in 2022 to $25.08 billion by 2030.  

 

Spot the Difference 

Booming investment reflects the fact that differentiation is now more important than ever. And in an ever-growing number of products, that differentiation is found within software rather than hardware. For any enterprise looking to stand out from the crowd, the problem with using generic chips is that competitors can do the same. In contrast, custom semiconductors can offer unique freedom and power. Typically, designers leverage custom chips to improve performance, lower power consumption, reduce costs, and use space more efficiently. Beyond this, broader motivations can include greater supply chain resilience, improved vertical integration, and stronger IP protection. 

 

One Giant Leap?

While there’s no doubting the potential of in-house semiconductor design, it’s still a significant undertaking. Semiconductors are complex; their designs utilize chips that incorporate tens of billions of transistors. Enterprises need to attract people with the right skills and equip them with the right tools. But perhaps the key challenge with in-house semiconductor design is the heightened risk it carries. Any semiconductor design mistakes can lead to long production delays and significant cost increases. Moreover, across applications as diverse as data centers, autonomous vehicles, and 5G smartphones, there’s constant time-to-market pressure. Custom semiconductor design must fit within ever-shortening development timeframes.   

Close-up view of an integrated circuit
Close-up view of an integrated circuit.

 

Beating the Clock  

For businesses wary of in-house semiconductor design’s pitfalls, good news comes in the shape of an increasingly rich ecosystem of design tools. This includes sophisticated, intuitive tools that can optimize the all-important silicon debugging phase. Most estimates suggest that debugging typically accounts for 40%-60% of the overall project timetable. But whatever the figure, speeding the journey to a production-ready solution is imperative. 

 

Managing Complexity

With Altair® HyperWorks® 2023, Altair presents an outstanding portfolio of semiconductor debugging tools that offers the powerful, high-capacity performance needed to handle billions of circuit transistors. Supporting an exceptional range of design abstractions from system, register-transfer level (RTL), and gate, the Altair HyperWorks platform enables efficient and comprehensive digital, analog, and mixed-signal design development and debugging. Used by many of the world’s leading in-house SoC development teams, these solutions ensure teams can identify problems swiftly and precisely before committing designs to silicon. 

 

The Right Tools for the Job

To ensure the closest possible match for their project requirements, organizations can choose from four discrete tool offerings in the Altair® Silicon Debug Tools® solution. StarVision® PRO represents a true “Swiss Army knife” solution, capable of visualizing and debugging a comprehensive array of mixed-signal and IP-integrated SoC designs. Additionally, designers have the option of more streamlined tools — RTLvision® PRO, GateVision® PRO, and SpiceVision® PRO — for working with RTL abstraction, gate-level netlists, and Spice circuit models, respectively. Capability enhancements with Altair HyperWorks 2023 include smarter circuit exploration, faster object searching, and better handling of complex designs. Customizable API options further enhance tool flexibility. The result is blazing-fast semiconductor debugging. 

These tools and the platform’s complete range of design and debugging capabilities are all available via Altair Units, the “all-in, always-on” licensing model that empowers users to leverage units to access Altair products when, where, and how they need them. Within the same workspace, teams can take advantage of an extensive collection of complementary electronic design automation (EDA) solutions, such as the Altair HyperSpice circuit simulator and Altair® PollEx™ PCB design and verification tools. 

 

The Whole Picture

Seamless, end-to-end semiconductor development includes managing HPC resources. Altair offers scalable HPC solutions like Altair® FlowTracer™ for optimizing compute resources and supporting flow visualization, analysis, and troubleshooting. When development is spread across multiple geographical locations and business units, Altair® Allocator™ offers management solutions for maximizing license usage through sharing. And when organizations, including those with large, multi-site environments, need to optimize their license spending and utilization, Altair® Monitor™ leverages current and historical data to provide real-time insight into software license availability, usage, and job status.

 

Unleashing Innovation

Compared to many of the technology megatrends currently reshaping our world, the growth of custom semiconductors has largely flown under the radar. But it’d be a mistake to understate their significance. Migration to tailor-made chips is enabling talented design teams to supercharge creativity and innovation in all their projects. And the latest design tools in Altair HyperWorks 2023 are a pivotal part of this unfolding story. By accelerating the completion of complex designs and rapidly identifying and rectifying mistakes, these tools are making an even more compelling business case for the fabless strategy. In the process, they’re also opening the door for more enterprises to embrace Altair’s industry-leading solutions. All this is good news for anyone interested in harnessing the potential of these transformative technologies within their organizations – a critical tool that gives organizations that cherished competitive edge. 

To learn more about Altair’s semiconductor solutions, visit https://altair.com/semiconductors.