We Designed Our Chips with First Pass Success — and So Can You
Like most thrilling adventures, this one began with a question: When interviewing for my current job at ScaleFlux, a computational storage vendor, in early 2019, my future boss asked me, “Do you think we can design our own chips?” For a small startup like ScaleFlux, it might seem like an insurmountable project. But, appreciating a challenge, I responded enthusiastically, “Yes!”
What are the benefits? You gain flexibility and increase sustainability. You level the playing field so you can compete with major global technology companies. You also retain control of your architecture rather than giving it to someone else. After all, your architecture is your company’s secret sauce.
Another advantage is time to market. If you don’t have control over your chip design, a change in your assembled final product could result in a six-month delay in production — or longer — because of the redesign and validation steps involved.
Most of the strategies involved in chip design are the same regardless of what type of chip you build. However, at ScaleFlux, we were specifically interested in designing a system on a chip (SoC) for next-generation SSD drives because it can combine many aspects of a computer system into a single chip.
My goal for our chip design was “A-0” success, meaning immediate production readiness, with no modification or redesign necessary. Producing a market-ready A-0 chip is a monumental challenge barely attempted by even the largest, most sophisticated tech companies. Still, it is achievable with the right mentality and a “can do” attitude.
As we discovered later, stalled capacity at fabs (the fabrication plants manufacturing semiconductors) provided further incentive to be in control of our own destiny. The global economy struggled with the chip shortage, which resulted in shipping challenges caused by shortages of the materials used to package the chips.
Yet, because we had reserved our position in the fabs, we could weather the worst of the chip shortage as competitors floundered.
We designed a working chip on our first try, and I am proud of our success. Let me tell you that now is a fantastic time to get started with designing your chips, and I want to see others accomplish the same goal. While a smart — and likely profitable — venture, designing your own chips isn’t easy. It requires a substantial initial investment of time and money. I experienced that for myself when ScaleFlux took on the challenge. There were bumps along the way, but looking back, it’s all been worth it — and the ROI took just a couple of years.
So, allow me to share six strategies I found tremendously helpful in streamlining the chip design process:
1. Commit Enough Resources to the Project
The initial investment includes building your team, purchasing simulation and design technology tools and contracting with production partners to develop your chips. While the schedule is king, quality is queen, so build enough time into your schedule to keep the quality high.
ScaleFlux’s investment was 10s of millions of dollars, and the project took a year and a half. Whatever your level of investment, allocate a sufficient amount for success and never cut corners. After all, there’s no patch for most hardware failures.
2. Gather a Skilled Team
Every person on our 50-person team contributed to the project’s success. I didn’t need a lone hero who could “do it all.” I needed a cross-functional group of humble, hard-working people who could admit what they didn’t know, communicate effectively and focus on the company’s objectives over their egos. I’ll never forget the big smiles on team members’ faces at the party to celebrate the successful validation of our first chips.
3. Pick the Right Partners
Select technology partners with a track record of success in specialized domains, such as physical design, testability and packaging. Qualified semiconductor engineers are a hot commodity in the US, so be flexible about where you source your talent. Your next team member could be an up-and-coming intern still in college or a semiconductor engineer who lives on the other side of the globe. For the verification team, aim for a minimum 1:2 ratio of designers to verification engineers. And as your team achieves, reward the team rather than individual members.
4. Adopt a Leadership Mindset
Agility is a significant advantage at a startup — you shouldn’t waste time making decisions. Stepping outside your comfort zone as a company and designing new technology is risky. But with the right mindset and appropriate resources, you can build a foundation of discipline and thorough planning to take calculated risks that bring tremendous gains.
While we limited architectural changes after the design kickoff, chip design involves a million small tasks. If just one of them goes wrong — like a team member misreading a design spec and making an error — your chip won’t work. We automated process steps whenever possible and used numerous checklists — following the adage to trust but verify — and those checklists at every significant design phase kept us on task during countless reviews.
5. Seek Outside Expertise When Needed
Large companies sometimes want to do everything in-house and resist partnering with outside resources. When they do, they are often limited to working with a short list of approved partners. Startups and smaller companies are more comfortable reaching out for expertise because of headcount limitations and have more flexibility to work with promising startups.
Our partnerships on our chip design initiative let us tap into some of the industry’s top chip design and production experts and benefit from their knowledge and connections. One supplier had paid years in advance for production line capacity, which proved valuable. Another was a relatively unknown, small company started by a talented lead engineer I’d worked with for over 15 years at a previous company.
6. Resist Being Dazzled by “Cool Technology.”
Instead of prioritizing cost, I prioritized quality and production readiness in components. Some employees and board members urged me to use new technology in our chip design. I resisted. My first rule for my team was to limit ourselves to only selecting established, market-tested intellectual property (IP) when sourcing technology for our chips.
All the IP we used when designing our chips were production-worthy rather than new. I chose older, time-tested technology over shiny, new technology. I wanted IP that had pushed dozens of previous SoCs to production and contributed to millions of shipped chips.
You, Too, Can Design Your Own Chips
With supply chain issues continuing and China dominating the chip fabrication market, companies can save money and gain a competitive edge by handling the first half of chip manufacturing — chip design — themselves.
Now, ScaleFlux is working on technology focused on reducing costs and designing next-generation chips for our future products. I hope our story inspires you. We’re a technology startup without the resources of an established company. We saw a need — and recognized the significant benefits we could realize — and we made it happen.
So can you.