What Would Joe Do?
Peggy Aycinena is a freelance journalist and Editor of EDA Confidential at www.aycinena.com. She can be reached at peggy at aycinena dot com.
ProPlus’ CTO: Intelligence in Design Personified
April 24th, 2014 by Peggy Aycinena
Talking to ProPlus Design Solutions requires a long view of history over at least the last 20 years in EDA. In 1993, BTA, an EDA company focused on device model extraction and SPICE simulation, was founded with U.C. Berkeley’s Dr. Chenming Hu as Chairman of the Board. In 1999, BTA merged with Ultima, and became Celestry in 2001.
Finally, in 2003, the combined companies were acquired by Cadence Design Systems. Then in 2007, a new company called ProPlus was spun out of Cadence to support the original BSIMProPlus device modeling platform with roots going back to BTA/Celestry.
Current ProPlus CTO Bruce McGaughy earned his PhD at Cal with Chenming Hu as his advisor, served at both BTA and Celestry, and worked at Cadence, before joining ProPlus 6 years ago. I had a chance to talk with Dr. McGaughy in person last month in Silicon Valley. Our conversation covered a range of topics.
“What inspired you to join ProPlus?” I asked.
McGaughy said, “I felt with the progression of the technology, the move to FinFETs and the requirement for higher accuracy and increased computation, there was going to be a need in the industry to make the related tools available and practical for use by designers.
“At the time, ProPlus did not have design-for-yield tools, but I felt that was something I could [spearhead] – the effort to produce those types of products – so I was involved in the subsequent licensing of DFY technology from IBM, as well as the further refinement of the technology for the ProPlus product line. Joining ProPlus gave me the opportunity to [enhance the company] in that manner.”
I asked McGaughy who ProPlus competes with today.
He said the answer depends on which of the company’s three product lines you are looking at: “The closest competitor for our BSIMProPlus transistor modeling products line is Agilent’s EEsoft. Our products have been the leading solution in this area since ’90s, and are used by most foundries and fabs to extract device models for building PDKs, and for fitting the models to post-fabrication silicon measurement data.
“Our second product line has three parts – tools that help circuit designers predict yield from analog to high-sigma memory failures, tools for fast Monte Carlo analysis targeted at 2-or-3 sigma yield, and tools targeted at 6-to-7 sigma yield, things like SRAM, DRAM, and Flash. This last is the technology we licensed from IBM and now continue to co-develop with them. For this entire group of tools, we might see our competition to include MunEDA, Solido, and Cadence.
“Our final group of products is built around NanoSpice, our giga-scale parallelization for SPICE simulation suited for building high-capability SoCs with up to 500 million elements. In this area, we compete with all three of the major EDA vendors.”
“Given that acquisitions are the rage these days with those big vendors,” I asked, “would ProPlus similarly consider acquiring one of the smaller companies in EDA to embellish their portfolio?”
McGaughy responded, “We believe we have a complete product line at this time. In fact, no one else has the ability to go from a silicon model with simulation and DFY, to solutions useful to foundries for improving their processes. So we do not currently need any acquisitions to [increase our range of offerings].”
“Alternatively then,” I asked, “would any of the Big Three want to acquire ProPlus?”
McGaughy said that’s a possibility: “We provide better value and better productivity than similar tool offerings from the big EDA companies.”
“It seems really crucial these days,” I said, “to get information from manufacturing back upstream to the designers. How do we do that?”
McGaughy said, “Yes, it is important to get accurate models [into the hands of] the designers. They can’t predict yield for their designs without that information, so their tools need to be capable of covering 2-to-7 sigma to predict yield. Designers also need accurate, high-speed simulation that is customized for yield – something we also provide.”
“Given the complexities here,” I asked, “who teaches designers to use the tools that incorporate this downstream information into their work?”
“We do,” McGaughy said, “although most designers are familiar with SPICE and know how to use Monte Carlo tools and simulators. They then rely on the compute power in their workstations and our tools to make yield predictions for their designs. It is our vision at ProPlus to provide a set of practical tools to every designer to make every design [more manufacturable].”
“So, does every designer have your tools in their toolkit?” I asked.
“If they don’t,” McGaughy said, “they have to use a lot of work-arounds. Without our tools they take the risk of having to deal with silicon respins; they need our tools to guarantee both yield and performance for their designs. They can’t afford trade-offs between the two. Yes, other companies provide solutions, but it boils down to which company can provide the complete tool set.”
“Getting face-time with the customer is always so difficult,” I said. “Without it, how do you prove your tools?”
McGaughy said, “It is difficult on the design-for-yield side – many companies have never adopted these methodologies. So, in general, the companies most interested in our tools are working on the cutting edge. Those others, companies who have not yet felt the pain, may not yet understand the need.
“When we do go into companies, however, it’s less about convincing and more about simply asking them to look at the performance of our products. If a company is willing to make the investment, [they are usually satisfied].”
“Do shows like DAC help you reach out to customers?” I asked.
McGaughy said, “Yes, DAC is very important to us. We make a lot of connections there. Of course, we are going out all year-long and engaging with companies to promote our message.”
Looking to his own history, I asked McGaughy how he ended up in EDA.
He said, “I was always interested in computers. I had an Apple IIe early on, programmed games, and chose Electrical Engineering when I attended the University of Illinois. After I got my BSEE there, Berkeley was the natural choice for grad school.
“I always loved the idea of understanding how computers are built – even though I majored in Electrical Engineering – so at Berkeley, I took a lot of CS classes, including a course taught by David Patterson.
“Fortunately, I also met Chenming Hu who was interested in hot-carrier effects, mobility, and reliability phenomena at the device level. It was with Prof. Hu that I started work on applying that type of device-physics knowledge into the EDA field.”
“Speaking of devices, does it concern you that these days fewer students in Electrical Engineering seem to actually understand how a transistor works?” I asked.
McGaughy said, “Perhaps many people really need to understand device physics – for example, in the analog space – but the abstractions work so well today, not everyone needs that knowledge. There is so much to learn to be effective as an engineer, we have to take a divide-and-conquer attitude. Not everyone who is productive in the field needs to understand every detail of the engineering.”
“But if people had a deeper understanding,” I said, “wouldn’t they be more able to create work-arounds in their designs when they run into problems at smaller geometries?”
McGaughy said, “Again, that is what the abstractions are for. And the work-arounds need to be dealt with in a structured manner, by using the types of tools that we provide.”
“Given that ProPlus interacts so closely with the manufacturing ecosystem, I suspect you travel quite a lot,” I said.
McGaughy said, “Yes, I travel a lot – all over Asia, including Japan, Korea, Singapore, and of course, Taiwan and China.”
“And I understand you are learning to speak Chinese. How is that going?” I asked.
McGaughy laughed, “It has been fun to trying to learn Mandarin, particularly as I hope to be better able to interact with my colleagues there. I am teaching myself by listening to podcasts whenever I am traveling, and through other learning programs.”
“That’s got to be very tough,” I said. “Any progress?”
Again he laughed, “So far, I have mastered what I call ‘Survival Chinese’. I can talk to the taxi driver and order a basic meal!”
Dr. Bruce McGaughy currently serves as CTO and Senior VP of Engineering at ProPlus Design Solutions. He was most recently the Chief Architect of the Simulation Division and Distinguished Engineer at Cadence Design Systems. Previously, he served as an R&D VP at BTA Technology and Celestry Design Technology, and later as an Engineering Group Director at Cadence. Dr. McGaughy has a PhD in EECS from U.C. Berkeley.
Tags: Agilent EEsoft, Bruce McGaughy, BSIMProPlus, BTA Technology, Cadence Design Systems, Celestry Design Technology, Chenming Hu, David Patterson, IBM, Mentor Graphics, MunEDA, NanoSpice, Solido, Synopsys, U.C. Berkeley, Ultima, University of Illinois