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LSI Logic Finds Middle Ground for Custom Chips

LSI Logic Wednesaday introduced a new semiconductor platform called RapidChip aimed at making compromises to bring cheaper, quicker time-to-market programmable chips.

Companies use LSI's products and tools to design custom chips to handle specific tasks in their own products. The Milpitas, Calif. company helped create the market for custom programmable chips almost two decades ago, but two major obstacles for the chips remain: the sometimes exorbitant cost and the long time-to-market.

The new platform aims to make a compromise between Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) that allow electronics makers to build prototypes of new chips quickly, but expensively, and Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs) , that while fully customizable and inexpensive to manufacture in bulk, can take over twice as much time to develop and design.

The new product line is made up of families of market-specific silicon platforms, which have been predefined and prefabricated to enable customizable designs. The customization is realized through the methodology and user-defined metal layers.

Russ Craig, research director, Semiconductors, for the Aberdeen Group, likened building a RapidChip to building a pre-fabricated house, where only some features will be constructed and customized.

"It's generally a good thing," said Craig. "The problem is that if you build something with their functional block elements in it, in order to differentiate yourself, you will have to be very clever about what you do in the 20% of the design that you do on a full custom basis."

LSI Logic estimates that the design start through product delivery for RapidChip will be approximately six months, comparable to a FPGA, but significantly shorter than a standard-cell ASIC. The company further notes that unit prices for RapidChip can be as low as 10% of a complex FPGA and total development costs can be as low as 20% of a normal standard-cell ASIC.

Following development, companies using RapidChip will also have the ability to migrate a design to a full ASIC to achieve the lowest possible unit price.

Craig notes that while LSI Logic is making big noise about its RapidChip, the concept of using aspects of previous engineering is actually becoming rather standard in chip design.

"This is very much a mainstream approach," Craig said. "It's very difficult to pay for the huge amount of engineering that goes into a custom design, and in most cases you don't need to do all that engineering."

The company is hyping its new chip heavily, reportedly running full-page ads in newspapers nationwide.

"We're in the middle of a semiconductor nuclear winter here," Craig said. "If you have something that is a significant step up for you, which this for LSI, I am not at all surprised that they are publicizing it very widely."

The first RapidChip products are currently in design and will be manufactured early next year using LSI Logic's G12 and Gflx, 0.18 and 0.11-micron process technologies. According to the company, G90, 90-nanometer versions of the new technology will be available in late 2003.