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Intel, Advantest back open test platform

Posted: 24 Jul 2002 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Intel? Advantest? IC test? automated test equipment? PC peripheral?

Leading ATE vendor Advantest Corp. is spearheading an effort to create an industrywide platform for IC test that could help assuage the often rocky relationship between chip suppliers and their automated test equipment providers. Backers, which include Intel Corp., say that it's about time.

"The time has come for an open architecture," said Navid Shahriari, test equipment manager at Intel. "There's no way we can stay on course with our current road maps and stay with the tester flavor of the day."

If Advantest and Intel pull it off, ATE vendors will eventually quit building proprietary platforms with their own test boards, software and interfaces, and instead will design open systems. To be sure, ATE vendors have talked about open standards before, but this proposal?unveiled at the Semicon West exposition last week?goes well beyond previous efforts. In effect, test equipment would become modularized boards that could be swapped out and upgraded pain free.

"The kind of modular platform is analogous to PC peripherals?when your disk drive or CD player becomes obsolete, you simply remove it and replace it with a more powerful one. This is a revolutionary concept for test systems, but one that is long overdue," said Nicholas Konidaris, president and chief executive officer of Advantest America.

Advantest claims it has created a "consortium" consisting of 30 member companies in support of the idea, but this might be a stretch. None of the other major ATE vendors have gone on record saying they back the initiative. Some, such as Agilent Technologies, said they're still waiting for an invitation.

Openness and apple pie

Even so, competing ATE companies won't be able to ignore the effort. Open standards, like motherhood and apple pie, are something few vendors would shun, if only to stay in tune with what competitors are doing. Indeed, Teradyne Inc. said last week that it is expanding efforts to open up its low-cost ATE architecture, announced in May, which allows third parties to develop instrumentation options around its Integra Flex line.

Teradyne's move suggests that while ATE platforms are becoming more open, vendors have a way to go before they agree on any universal platform. "The concept of an open architecture is a good idea," said Phil Smith, strategic-marketing manager for Teradyne. "But we will compete with [the Advantest-Intel consortium]." Like the Advantest initiative, Teradyne says it may also open up its architecture to rival ATE vendors. "We're opening the system fully," Smith said. "We're enabling an open architecture."

That Advantest's proposal has been endorsed by Intel, one of the most vocal critics of the ATE industry and a big spender when it comes to capital equipment, may prove to be a powerful motivator for the industry.

Though Shahriari said Intel will leave it up to Advantest and others to drive the standards, the microprocessor giant is making its presence known. Part of the open-platform announcement was an 11-page missive describing "ATE architectural attributes" that Intel expects the open-architecture group to meet. It does not include implementation specifics.

"We expect to see the same level of variety, competition, reuse and innovation that the VXI and PXI standards have promoted in non-VLSI ATE," the paper noted.

Key complaints

Indeed, those are some of the key complaints that have dogged ATE vendors, long viewed by the chip industry as a wayward bunch that can't seem to meet increasingly complex test needs but always expect more money for their tools. The industry currently offers more than 50 platforms, creating a market so fragmented that different systems produced by the same vendor are often incompatible, said Advantest's Konidaris.

"The test industry cannot continue down the path of constantly mushrooming platforms," he said.

The proposed Semiconductor Test Open Architecture platform will consist of a standard backbone containing sockets into which modules from any ATE supplier can be plugged. Once those barriers are out of the way, smaller ATE companies can compete based on the performance of their modules and not have to worry about which sockets they can plug into, according to open-platform proponents.

Noble goals all, but history is not on the side of the open-architecture camp, critics pointed out last week. ATE vendors have been talking about open standards on and off for more than 10 years. These discussions have either gone nowhere or have resulted in standards so watered down that they are of little use to chip test equipment.

One of those is VXI, created 10 years ago as an extension of the VME board for testers. Tom Newsom, vice president and general manager of Agilent Technologies' system-on-chip business unit, contends that VXI solved just 20 percent of the compatibility issues, leaving the rest for vendors and customers to sort out. According to Newsom, VXI did not address many questions about software, interoperability and, most important, who is responsible for the problems. "VXI customers wanted someone to take ownership of these," Newsom said. "These are about system-level questions."

Moreover, the standards-making process in test and measurement has proved to be slow and tedious. This is true even for the most narrow of issues that should be straightforward.

Agilent, for example, is backing the Standard Test Interface Language (STIL), which is designed to bridge simulation tools from electronic design automation companies with IC testers, and has signed on EDA heavyweight Synopsys Inc. as a development partner. However, the three-year-old standard defines only a baseline set of rules governing scan test. Six extensions needed to plug holes in the standard are now being considered by IEEE.

Despite its shortcomings, STIL was pushed out of the standards-making body because participants could not agree on even some of the most basic points, such as dc-level test, said Kim Mast, product manager at Agilent. "The key point about STIL is that it isn't done yet," he said.

Petty religious wars

This will be one of the challenges to proponents of an open test architecture: finding a way to keep ATE companies and users from getting embroiled in petty religious wars that can hinder progress. Some observers say this won't be easy because of the scope of the project and the number of participants involved.

Even if a common architecture can be defined, there's still a considerable amount of risk in buying modules from vendors other than the one whose name appears on the chassis, some say.

For starters, if something goes awry, who's to blame? At least with one equipment vendor building the software and interfaces that link the boards, there's little debate about whose engineers are expected to hop on a plane when a tester goes down.

That could prove to be a formidable psychological barrier. "Test exists to reduce uncertainty," Agilent's Newsom said. "In the world of test a little bit of an unspecified parameter could make the system not work."

Advantest, however, insists that the test industry has little choice but to move away from proprietary platforms so that chip vendors won't be held captive by their ATE suppliers. Indeed, skyrocketing costs have led to a tendency for chip makers to hold onto existing testers for as long as possible.

John S. Edmunds, chief financial officer at Oak Technology Inc., said his company recently paid $1.5 million for an Agilent 93000 logic tester, its first major capital equipment purchase in seven years. Edmunds said it was needed because of the amount of mixed-signal circuitry being implanted into Oak's optical-storage and digital-imaging products, but said he wished Moore's Law could bring down the cost of test as it has transistor cost.

Test costs have also come into sharper focus with the move to system-on-chip methodologies, heavier use of source-synchronous signaling and the mixing of logic and memory on the same IC.

All the more reason to promote an open architecture, Advantest argues. And even the skeptics agree it's a concept worth talking about. "If [Advantest's] intention is to create some discussion then that is absolutely a good thing to do," Agilent's Newsom said.

? Anthony Cataldo

EE Times

Mark LaPedus of Semiconductor Business News contributed to this story.

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