Alchip Technologies is using its AI and high performance computing strength as a chip design house to win capacity from TSMC at the most advanced 7nm and 5nm nodes.
Alchip Technologies is using its AI and high performance computing strength as a chip design house to win capacity from Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) at the most advanced 7nm and 5nm nodes.
Competing with better-known TSMC customers such as Apple, AMD, Qualcomm, MediaTek and NXP, tiny Alchip has gained allocation at leading nodes from the world’s largest foundry because TSMC sees business potential in the full-reticle size devices that the tiny company designs featuring gate counts in the billions.
Alchip, which counts some of its earliest customers in China, has more recently been expanding sales to U.S. fabless and systems makers.
In 2019, Alchip’s annual revenue rose by more than 20 percent to the equivalent of $140 million. It’s admirable growth from a small base during a year that was difficult for other companies in the semiconductor industry. Company CEO Johnny Shen is looking forward to another year of strong revenue gains.
“Many of our customers focus on supercomputers and AI,” Shen said in an interview with EE Times. “Recently, car computers using Arm or or RISC-V processors have become very popular. A few of our customers have developed cloud-computing processors using Arm-based CPUs. Eventually, they want to replace x86 server CPUs. That area has also grown quite a bit.”
In its announcement of second-quarter results, TSMC said that high performance computing was the company’s fastest growing business segment. Alchip said it accounts for part of that growth.
Alchip recently designed a reticle-sized chip for a Preferred Networks supercomputer that won recognition from Green 500 for high efficiency. Shen declined to name other customers, citing non-disclosure agreements he’s signed with the companies.
Some Alchip customers are social network providers that want to crunch big data, according to Shen. They are looking for more efficient solutions to replace chips mainly provided by Nvidia, he says.
Alchip says it completed three 7nm tapeouts in May and expects nine at that process node by the end of this year. The company works exclusively with TSMC as its foundry but has used Samsung and Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (SMIC) as chip suppliers in the past.
Alchip says it has a proven design flow and methodology that optimizes architectures for power, performance and area requirements while meeting stringent tapeout schedules. Alchip says its 7nm capabilities include large-scale design partition and signoff, an abutment flow with design for test and 2.5D packaging that includes interposer and substrates with comprehensive system co-design signoff.
“Alchip’s sweet spot has always been in leading-edge technologies, and at 7nm, we have recorded 100% silicon success with our repeat customers,” said Shen. Alchip expects to do its first 5nm design for a North American customer later this year, he said.
The company has customers in China, Japan, Europe and the U.S.
The non-recurring engineering (NRE) cost for a 5nm design is more than $20 million, according to Shen. Using an unproven service provider can be very risky, he says.
As a small chip-design house, Alchip’s ability to get capacity allocations from TSMC at the advanced nodes has been difficult, Shen says.
In the second half of this year, 16nm capacity at TSMC will be very tight, but Alchip will not face a problem because the company always provides TSMC its business forecasts at least six months in advance to secure allocation, according to Shen. But at the 7nm node, supply will still be a challenge because Apple, AMD, Qualcomm and MediaTek are expecting a lot of capacity, he said.
“To be honest, we won’t get 100% capacity support on 7nm,” Shen said. “But for each project, we do have some capacity. I think the reason is TSMC wants to diversify their portfolio a bit. They cannot just depend on a few customers.”
The U.S. government’s crackdown on TSMC that will halt the foundry’s supply of chips to Huawei by September this year has freed up some capacity at the 7nm and finer process nodes. Shen says he hopes his company can grab more capacity from TSMC to make up the shortfall.