SILICON | China’s design tools conundrum

3 min read
(Image credit: TechNode/Shi Jiayi)

The first of two articles in a series on electronic design automation tools in China’s semiconductor sector. Read the second part here.

Can China achieve independence in integrated circuits (IC)? It’s a question I get asked a lot, and over the next few months I plan to shed light on where China is doing well and where it is not. It’s a complicated picture, but let’s start by saying this: it’s not going to be independent anytime soon.

One big reason for this is electronic design automation tools (EDA), a critical layer of IC design currently dominated by companies that are either US-owned or at least subject to US export controls. There are home-grown alternatives for a few specialized applications and more are on the horizon, but this category is an Achilles’ heel for efforts at chip independence, especially for Chinese companies with global ambitions.

What are EDA tools?

EDA tools are the software tools used to design ICs and printed circuit boards. Despite only accounting for around $10 billion of the $450-500 billion global chip industry they are essential to the design and creation of semiconductors.

Different EDA tools are required for different tasks and work in a design flow that all chip designers use to not only design but also analyze, verify, and debug semiconductor chips. This is not something that can be done manually, especially given the complexity of modern designs, which can contain tens of billions of transistors. Tools can be broken down into four or five main subcategories: design, simulation, verification, manufacturing prep, and functional safety. It is feasible to mix and match, but people tend to stick to one flow to keep things simpler, faster, and cheaper

Who are the main players?

Although there are many EDA tool companies out there, the industry is dominated by three main players—Synopsys, Cadence, and Mentor Graphics. These were all US companies until recently, when Mentor was acquired by Siemens. It is still based in the US and is a US company in every other way. Together they account for approximately 60 to 70 percent of the global EDA market, with Synopsys alone accounting for over one third.

Personally, I have not met a single fabless chip design company in China that has not said they use either Synopsys or Cadence design flows, or tools from both. There are no local alternatives, and while some may supplement parts of the Cadence or Synopsys flows with tools from other companies, these are usually for niche situations and do not play a main role in their design process.

The back up my anecdotal experience, showing that around 95 percent of EDA sales in China are divided amongst these three companies.

What does this mean for China?

Speaking to my clients, and Chinese in the industry, suggests Synopsys and Cadence are no longer able to work with Huawei, or any other company on the BIS entity list. This was further confirmed during the launch of the Huawei Ascend 910 AI chip when Huawei rotating chairman said Synopsys and Cadence could no longer work with Huawei.

This isn’t a disaster right away. Companies like HiSilicon will no longer receive support from their suppliers, but they already have access to the tools, and they know how to use them. I wouldn’t be surprised if they continue bringing out chips through 2020.

Suppose this becomes the new norm though, and that HiSilicon loses access indefinitely. This would mean competitors have access to support, receive all the latest patches, updates, and improvements. HiSilicon doesn’t. Perhaps current licenses run out and they cannot renew them.

What tools can they use then? How quickly can they re-train engineers who have relied on US tools since their university days to use a whole new set of tools? Designs will come out slower and fall behind competitors.

What about alternatives?

A purely domestic company may be able to secretly use unlicensed/pirated tools. Indeed, this is extremely common in China. Many pure domestic companies I speak with will use pirated tools somewhere in their design flow.

Listed companies, or international players like Huawei, wouldn’t be able to get away with this though. A team of lawyers would be waiting for them.

Perhaps they could use third party design services? This would get around the problem, but would mean outsourcing the design. It would also mean a significant number of employees were no longer needed. For HiSilicon, the jewel in China’s IC design crown, it would be impossible to admit it was no longer designing chips, at least not the whole design. To get around this problem, China will need its own EDA solutions. In the next installment, we’ll see why this is not as easy it sounds.