The state of SoC design in China is a difficult subject to research, but it is a question of vital interest to many designers and managers in the rest of the world. In recent weeks we have seen a couple of data points that suggest an interesting and fluid picture.
One point comes from Open-Silicon, which recently collaborated with two companies from the People’s Republic on a very substantial design. The chip was a 100 Mgate wireless networking SoC done in TSMC 65nm CMOS. Virtually all the RTL was developed at Open-Silicon’s customer, Shenzhen-based HiSilicon. The physical design was a collaboration between a team of Open-Silicon engineers and a team at Brite Semiconductor in Shanghai.
The second data point comes from Taiwan-based fabless ASIC house Global Unichip. Director of marketing Keh-Ching Huang says that the company is currently engaged in several 28nm designs planned for tapeout next year. Some of these engagements are with mainland Chinese companies.
“Chinese companies are very aggressive at 28nm,” Huang says. “Some have access to consumer-electronics distribution channels there. They are planning to open some new markets in areas like tablets and Internet access devices—products that will be China-specific.”
Some people maintain a stereotype that mainland Chinese companies are never quite ready for leading-edge design. But it is becoming clear that some teams in China are taking the lead on very challenging projects, from systems planning through detailed product definition and RTL development. Physical design and closure skills are just a matter of time. With their unusual access to capital, their growing skills, and their proprietary access to an enormous local market, fabless semi houses and systems vendors in the People’s Republic may be in a better position to exploit the advanced nodes of the future—28nm, 22nm, and beyond—than will be most companies in the rest of the world. That may not be how we are used to thinking about the semiconductor industry in China, but we’d better consider the possibility.