Feature

One chip answer to integrated circuits

Asic puts multifunctionality on a single chip, writes Nick Langley

What is it?

An Application Specific Integrated Circuit (Asic), which puts the functionality that would otherwise be provided by a number of different components on a single chip.

This has efficiency and performance advantages over a system built from standard components, since it can be configured in the way that most closely meets the requirements of the application. Much of the functionality is bought from third-party "libraries".


Where did it originate?

In the 1980s, with the development of very large-scale integration microprocessor technology. However, the industry is still struggling to find solutions to long development timescales - up to two years in some instances - and a high rate of errors found only when chips are due to go into production. With budgets slashed, the number of new Asic developments fell sharply last year, and analysts such as Gartner predict a continuing fall.


What is it for?

Designers first license as much functionality as they can, in the form of pre-designed circuits. They define the application-specific algorithms in a special programming language - usually Verilog or VHDL, the very high-speed integrated circuit hardware description language.

They then produce the gate-level logic - the connections between transistors on the chip. At every stage, testing and simulation is used to ensure the chip does what it is supposed to do, and is fast enough. This may involve debugging and rewriting code and reconfiguring the chip to optimise the distance between groups of related transistors. Next comes physical design, which is what the chip foundry uses to manufacture a prototype. After further testing, and any remedial work undertaken, the Asic goes into production.


What makes it special?

Asic companies claim this is the fastest, most cost-effective, and least error-prone method of integrated circuit design. The more licensed functionality that is used, the quicker the chip can go into production, although licences and royalties can add a lot to development costs and the price of the finished Asic.

While the semiconductor industry has struggled, Gartner Group says revenues for "semiconductor intellectual property blocks" have been rising.


How difficult is it?

You will need to know about electronic circuits and Verilog or VHDL. There are tools to help with logic synthesis, layout, testing and simulation. IBM provides tools (the Blue Logic Methodology Guide and the Blue Logic System-on-a-chip Design Kit) which it claims can reduce Asic developments from 18 months to six months or less.


Where is it used?

In everything from switches, routers and computer graphics products to digital radios and talking dolls.


Not to be confused with...

Asic Instinct, a story of lust in the semiconductor industry; Asic joke, an integrated circuit design in dubious taste.


What does it run on?

All semiconductor makers are involved. IBM claims to be the world's biggest supplier. But there are plenty of small design shops too.


Few people know that...

Like the police, there is a height requirement. Asic companies look for "tall, thin engineers" who can handle functional design, functional verification and physical design, rather than short, fat specialists in each of these disciplines.


What is coming up?

Asic chips for multiple applications, enabling costs to be spread; application specific standard products using only predefined technology.

Rates of pay   Asic design engineers can look to earn £45,000 to £60,000.
Training    Asic training is available from tools suppliers. See the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers' Asic conference website (www.asic.union.edu) and the UK's Semiconductor Businesses Association (www.semiconductor.org) for possible contacts.


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This was first published in February 2003

 

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