59 this weekth Design Automation Conference (DAC 2022) in San Francisco, a panel discussion focused on the question: “Is the democratization of chip design already happening?” Here one of the panelists, Vic Kulkarni, chief strategy officer at Si2presents a summary of the discussion and his own additional notes.

Vic Kulkarni

Before diving into his remarks to set the scene, the panel discussed how far we’ve come when it comes to democratizing silicon. This is based on the fact that silicon has become ubiquitous, no longer limited to powerful servers, and silicon content has found its place in many systems. Bespoke silicone is no longer rare and is often a necessary step to enable differentiation. The panel explores whether silicon design and manufacturing is still only available to the few, or what can be done to remove the significant barrier to entry.

Here are the panel questions (asked by me) and Vik Kulkarni’s notes.

Nitin Dahad: What do we mean by democratizing chip design?

Vic Kulkarni: Plato, the Greek philosopher, wrote in the early 1500s that equality without rules leads to power-seeking individuals or institutions motivated by personal gain. They can become highly corrupt and this can eventually lead to tyranny. In this context, democratizationwith membership makes more sense for the chip design world, where there is a spirit of community, collaboration, interaction and contribution of members and above all data security, for easy chip design and manufacturing.

Today, the bar for creating innovative custom silicon designs has been raised to over $50 million per chip, in addition to creating the software stack to make it successful. This has led to an elite class of IP, SoC and silicon to systems designers.

We need to lower the barrier to entry both financially and from a technology investment perspective for a larger ecosystem:

  • Give access to IP (soft and hard) building blocks
  • EDA tools for university researchers, students
  • Innovative startups focused on new applications ranging from 5G to 6G, hyperscalers, AI, edge computing, automotive 3D sensors.

In this context, democratization with strong guardrails for IP protection and security for all members. One well-proven model is Si2’s OpenAccess, an example of democratization with a membership of over 50 companies, including collaborators, developers ranging from foundries, IP, EDA and chipmakers. This now contains over a million lines of code.

Nitin Dahad: Is open source a key part of this democratization?

Vic Kulkarni: Open source is one of the key parts of democratization. This is an asset as it eliminates the cost of purchasing commercial EDA tools. The work of Professor Kahng and collaborators Open road the project is an excellent example of this. Github, Kafka and RedHat are good examples. FPGA has an infrastructure that enables democratization. RISC-V is another important example.

However, we can think of other options that EDA companies could offer with well-defined democratization business models.

  • A launch version, perhaps as SaaS
  • Incremental pricing based on problem complexity, number of users
  • Minimum fee for universities, students, researchers.

We must also bring order to chaos through the cooperative membership model. Technical contributions from the community, access control, security and traceability for downloads may use a blockchain-based approach. A prime example of this is the emergence of a well-defined ecosystem of app stores with secure APIs for processed data created and maintained by the FAANG community.

FAANG Applications - Silicon DAC Democratization 2022
A well-defined ecosystem of app stores with secure APIs for processed data, created and maintained by the FAANG community, is emerging to help bring order to chaos through the collaborative membership model. (Image: Si2)

The value proposition of such APIs is quite clear:

  • Enables a developer ecosystem
  • A spur innovative applications developed on software platforms
  • The APIs are well documented and provide secure, consistent and flexible user interfaces.

The result of such democratization has witnessed an impressive growth of applications using platform-specific APIs. This resulted in an explosive growth of FAANG companies and their platforms. Of course, the knowledge gap between having a nascent idea and converting it into working C or Python code for application workloads and translating that through the write process is a big challenge.

Nitin Dahad: Are traditional EDA vendor business models a help or a hindrance to democratization?

Vic Kulkarni: Traditional EDA producer models are an obstacle to democratization. However, EDA companies are evolving to adapt to the needs of new entrants. Three major players, Synopsys, Cadence, and Ansys CDNS, have announced graded SaaS models for parts of their product portfolio, and it’s reasonable to assume there are more to come.

The recent push towards cloud-based business models certainly enables new players in chip design to gain access to a wide range of EDA flows without needing to invest large sums upfront in tools and computing infrastructure. Silicon catalyst is an excellent channel to help startups with their in-kind affiliate program.

Nitin Dahad: What about skills – what needs to be done to make it easier for lay people to benefit from the democratization of silicon?

Vic Kulkarni: Before we get to democratization, there is already a huge talent shortage due to the recent growth in semiconductor system design using custom silicon for application-specific system verticals. As mentioned, we now only have the elite class of IP, SoC and silicon for system designers. Securing the necessary workforce requires private-public partnerships – such as government funding of more than $450 million per year for Purdue University in the US to massively increase the number of graduate students in multiple disciplines.

We also see that non-traditional educational mechanisms can also come into play. Today there is many online resources available. But if this level of training is necessary, then democratization will not happen. We need better tools that can bring ideas to silicon in a fully automated way – for example, “compiling” from a high-level behavioral language without requiring knowledge of layout, IP design, manufacturing process, etc.

Greater focus on off-the-shelf solutions, whether focused on a market vertical (eg automotive, AI/HPC, memory) or a technology horizon (energy efficiency, multi-matrix systems, thermal). AI/ML-based automation is another area that can make life easier for non-specialists.

Nitin Dahad: What’s the one thing that’s most important to you about where we are in this process, and the one thing you’d like the audience to walk away thinking about?

Vic Kulkarni: My view is that the next wave of innovation will come from a silicon-first system of innovation thinking to an ecosystem collaboration system. Dr. Malik Thatipamulla, CTO, Ericsson Silicon Valley, recently shared an important vision for a multidimensional ecosystem mindset to make the transition from 5G to 6G a feasible goal within the next 5 years.

Semiconductor Industry Stream - Democratization of Silicon DAC 2022
The traditional semiconductor industry will continue to thrive, but those who adapt to this approach will create the big winners. (Image: Si2)

What I would like the audience to think about are things like:

  • How to overcome this talent shortage barrier? What are some creative ways this can be done?
  • Which would be a more practical approach? For example programmable silicon or systems. FPGA is one form where it is already manufactured.
  • In the peripheral IoT space, many are producing kits that allow one to customize the system to meet their needs. This is more likely a middle position.

Related content:

DAC 2022 panel: Democratization of chip design

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