Open architecture vs. standards: Who’s on first?

By Debra Vogler
WaferNews Technical Editor

“Another major initiative is getting a common highway to the customer base,” says Zafiropoulo. “Especially since utilization in factories is typically less than 50%. We need to find a better way to get data from machines to people with security.”

Zafiropoulo describes a possible approach as a kind of pay-as-you-go service similar to a phone line – one accessible to any SEMI member. “Other information such as technical data, marketing information, updates, etc., could also be transmitted rapidly and ultimately improve access to information, increasing factory utilization and feedback.”

If this year’s SEMICON West was any indication, the ATE sector of the industry appears to have a proliferation of standards and open architecture activities with no end in sight – Zafiropoulo has his work cut out for him. Toshio Maruyama, president and COO of Advantest Corp., and Nicholas Konidaris, president and CEO of Advantest America, chaired a press conference introducing the Semiconductor Test Consortium.

The consortium, open to all in the semiconductor industry with a vested interest in the test sector, seeks to simplify and reduce the cost of testing complex logic devices. A list of members was not disclosed but representatives of Intel and Wavecrest participated in the announcement. Konidaris characterized the activity by noting, “You can have a bold move by a major supplier and a major customer, or you can wait longer for a standard.” Intel attendees noted that the IC manufacturer wants a common infrastructure – they don’t believe the current situation in the industry is workable. The white paper upon which the consortium is based was authored by Intel and covers general attributes and capabilities for ATE platforms including flexibility, modularity, scalability, efficiency, and the computing environment.

Even before SEMICON West, Teradyne announced its open architecture initiative, which is used in its Integra FLEX test system. According to Mark Kohalmy, business development manager of the initiative, the idea is to enable a broader array of third party instrumentation suppliers the ability to provide instruments that work with Teradyne’s platform. But an open architecture isn’t the same as a standard, cautions Kohalmy, and likened the activity in the ATE sector to the beginnings of the Internet.

Noting that Teradyne has almost 40% of the market share for SoC testers, Kohalmy believes that is one reason the company will be successful in its open architecture strategy. In this respect, the situation may be similar to that concerning Applied Materials, which has such a large market share that it has led to a number of communications protocols becoming de facto standards.

Other reasons Kohalmy gave for believing in Teradyne’s open architecture: “It’s available now and we’ve already shown that it can be used by disparate design teams. Teradyne has development centers worldwide so we needed a standard interface. FLEX was designed to have an open architecture.”

Agilent’s Tom Newsom, VP and GM of the SoC business unit, says the company is a big believer in standards and supports the major ones already in use. So far, the company is not a part of a specific open architecture, preferring to stick with its 93000 SoC tester strategy. When asked how anyone could ignore the fact that Intel is working with Advantest on its Semiconductor Test Consortium, Newsom acknowledges that no one can ignore Intel, but he frames the issue around the question, “What does Intel want?”

“It wants fewer platforms with longer life and more capabilities on a single platform,” he answers.

He offered that Intel most likely believes in an open architecture because it worked for the PC industry.

Newsom brought up the ATE industry’s experience with the VXI standard as a learning experience. Based on the VME architecture, VXI is a backplane interface standard driven by the military. According to Newsom, although the original thought was that a standard open architecture would result in less costly cards, that was not the case.

“A lot of overhead was designed into the instrumentation cards, making them more expensive because you never really know what card would be next to what [in the test rack],” he explains.

Asked to comment on VXI, Kolhamy explains that, because of its military application – testing at avionics maintenance depots – the test volume was very low and throughput was not a requirement. The semiconductor industry has a large test volume and requires high throughout.

“The requirement for VXI was one of complexity, not throughput,” states Kolhamy.

NPTest, the wholly owned subsidiary of Schlumberger Ltd., has also been working on a strategy – the company will have more to say at the International Test Conference in October, according to Burnie West, technical advisor to the company.

Regarding the open architecture efforts currently being undertaken in the industry, West states that obtaining an open architecture is a complex undertaking with respect to the high volume test arena and thinks one question should be asked: “Did you think about these things [e.g., plug ‘n’ play instrumentation, massively multi-site test execution, consistent high-speed system communication] within the context of enabling effective participation without extensive collaboration with the platform owner?”

Explaining the difference between a standard and open architecture, West states, “If an architecture is sufficiently open and accessible and technically sound, it can become a de facto standard.” He further made a distinction between standards that become barriers vs. those that promote innovation.

“If a standard gets adopted too early, it tends to stifle innovation,” explaines West. “A standard promotes innovation if it’s a platform that innovators can stand upon instead of a barrier that they have to punch through.”

WaferNews

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