20-Minute Leaders“We work on chips that are serving the AI and supercomputer markets.”
“We work on chips that are serving the AI and supercomputer markets.”
Putting more and more performance capabilities on a semiconductor chip is a challenge, says Sandy Saper, head of HW, ASIC & FPGA development at Ready
Putting more and more performance capabilities on a semiconductor chip is a challenge, says Sandy Saper, head of HW, ASIC & FPGA development at Ready. But the ability to put more on chips through time has brought us to today’s technology, he shares. Developing a chip involves a variety of disciplines including architecture, design, and verification. Ensuring the chips work properly is critical because bugs can be very costly and time consuming to fix, he says. In addition to reaching the performance requirements, an engineer also has to think about how to meet them more efficiently, Saper explains. Ready has teams working on hardware as well as software, and Saper’s hardware team is now developing chips for artificial intelligence and supercomputers. He says that looking forward, engineers need to think about how to have more than one chip communicate as the demand for higher performance grows.
I fell in love with what's happening with chip design recently. I'd love to hear about your career journey and how you got into chip design.
I've been 30 years in the development of chips. Now I manage a hardware team that designs and develops chips for the semiconductor industry. I work at Ready, which is a private company in Israel. Half of the company is hardware, and half is software.
I was always interested in electricity as a teenager. When I signed up for university, I said, "Let's go into electricity." I had no idea what chips were then. But during my studies, I started to learn about all the amazing things electricity does. Then I started to learn about chip design. The two of us clicked, me and chip design. Ever since then, I've been developing chips from the start.
The interest in electricity and chip design, did it stem mainly from the academic side or the challenge side? What did you understand about where the world was going and the role chip design was going to play?
I was less into the academics and more into the hands-on and do it. You have an idea, get it done. I really didn't think back then, in my early 20s, where this was going. Back then, the technologies were in their infancy. When I'd finished university, there were already low-end microcontrollers for simple tasks, for computers. Just then, the first desktops were being produced.
Every year or two, there's another shrink where you can combine more and more in one chip. It's Moore's Law, and it's been going on ever since. We've been cramming more and more functions in every chip, which has enabled us to get where we are today. Cramming more and more performance in a single chip is more and more challenging for the design engineers, architects, and electronic engineers.
Why is chip design still relevant today? What advancements do we still have to make?
Artificial intelligence is just starting. Supercomputing is just starting. We work on chips that are serving the artificial intelligence and supercomputer markets. Without the supercomputers we have today, we could not have developed the vaccines that we are using for helping us cope with COVID-19. Supercomputers need super chips, and that's what we do.
Tell me about Ready, about where you're at today.
Ready is a company that has hardware and software. When you want to develop a chip, you need to know you come with requirements. It starts off with understanding your requirements to meet the performance, the price, and the power that you need.
There are a lot of disciplines to make a chip that meets the requirements. It starts off with the architecture. How do I even put all these blocks together so that they will function with each other? What's going to be in hardware and what is going to be in software is very critical. We in Ready can decide for the customer what can be in hardware and what can be in software. The architecture team decides how we are going to put this chip together to meet the performance and can work on it for between a month and half a year to make sure that the end product is going to meet what you need.
Then there's a design team, which has the expertise on how to design each actual block to meet the performance. Then after they have finished the design, it needs to be fully verified. We have a high quality verification team to make sure that what we have designed is going to fully work and there are no bugs. We cannot allow bugs. Then we have to change all the code that was written and translate that into the physical chip. Then we have to validate that the physical meets the requirements.
Every stage takes a few months, depending on the size of the chip. Then we have to validate that what we have done is exact. Then we ship it off to the factory. It costs millions of dollars to just prepare the chip for the factory, for the fab. The fabs are the highest technology factories in the world. Super clean, very high quality.
I cannot ship a chip that has a bug because it's going to cost me a million dollars to fix it. The time it takes to fabricate a high-end chip in the fab can take three to four months, and the time to market is critical. So if, God forbid, you have a bug in your chip, you will only detect that when you get the silicon after four or five months. At Ready, we have an excellent team that does the verification, the design, the architecture, and the final product.
Then after it's gone through all the stages in the factory, it needs to be packaged. We receive the chip and we validate, before we ship it to the customer, that it meets all the performance that we designed it for. That can also take a few weeks to validate that everything is perfect and that you don't have a field failure.
Coming from the software world, I was taught that as long as the bug is not huge, ship it and then roll out an update once you get some feedback. But it sounds like the detail that you're dealing with is an incredible amount. So I'm imagining that if I thought my software was complicated and had bugs, designing chips is just a little bit more detailed, right?
The code is very complicated to meet the requirements. You need a high-quality team and managers to manage that everything is fitting each other, everything comes on time, everything is working together till it works, until we ship it off to the factory.
What does a chip designer do when they get to the office in the morning?
After having the first cup of coffee, interaction with your co-workers is very important. To understand the requirements and how do I implement them so that it's efficient, it will function, and there's minimum chance of a bug. You go to your work, understand what the functionality is that I have to implement in this block. Or if it's a verification engineer, how am I going to write the code that is going to verify that the design is really clean?
We have tools that we use, and a lot of automation is in the process. We think part of the engineer's job is also to see how we can do this more efficiently. Every generation gets more and more complicated because we can put in more and more. So we're always thinking, "How can I do this more efficiently next time? Or now?" Which is very important since the demand for resources is high. The more efficient you are, the better.
As we're transitioning to the future, where are semiconductors positioned with the younger generation as opposed to software?
One basic axiom is that "software has to run on hardware." I always tell my software colleagues, "Without us, you couldn't develop anything." I think that we are going to have to think about supercomputing and how much we can really cram into one chip. How do I think of supercomputing? In other words, supporting multiple chips. Communication between the chips is very critical, which is also being worked on. That's the way I see it going forward. We now have to think about how we have multiple chips in the system, how are they going to communicate with one another so that we can meet the higher demand for performance.
Michael Matias, Forbes 30 Under 30, is the author of Age is Only an Int: Lessons I Learned as a Young Entrepreneur. He studies Artificial Intelligence at Stanford University, is a Venture Partner at J-Ventures and was an engineer at Hippo Insurance. Matias previously served as an officer in the 8200 unit. 20MinuteLeaders is a tech entrepreneurship interview series featuring one-on-one interviews with fascinating founders, innovators and thought leaders sharing their journeys and experiences.
Contributing editors: Michael Matias, Megan Ryan