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System, IC teardowns critical to 'business intelligence'

Posted: 29 Aug 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:system IC teardowns? critical business intelligence? electronics media?

With engineers stretched by extreme competition, accelerated time to market pressures, increasing cost and performance requirements and global patent-protection concerns, teardowns of ICs and systems have moved from being a hobby or a back-room skunks works activity to being a critical part of the electronics company's "business intelligence."

That intelligence can provide anything from time-saving clues as to how competitors solved the problems engineers are currently grappling, to identifying potential patent infringements, to full cost analysis. With enough information over time, teardowns can even provide insight into a competitor's business strategy.

Dynamic strategy
"Business intelligence has always been emphasized within companies determined to get!and stay!ahead," said David Carey, president of system teardown specialist Portelligent. "Only now it's a bit more public."

Jenn Markey, VP of marketing for analysis firm Semiconductor Insights said that, "Interest is definitely going mainstream." Over time, Markey said that SI has seen an increase in the amount of top-level or summary information being requested, an example being a floor plan.

"These are often used to help determine where to focus much more detailed analyses (either) on a specific device, or on a part of the device," she said. "The primary reason for this has been cost effectiveness and delivery time as chips have become more complex." For similar reasons, SI has also seen a large increase in IC cost to manufacture estimation, both for chip and system vendors.

Over time, and with enough information, Portelligent's Carey said that a company's business strategy can be discerned. "Every device has fingerprints: you can use that to find out how they think, how they do design. Enough details over a given time tells you how that company works and how they do things."

It was this rising interest in IC and systems intelligence that spurred CMP Technology into acquiring SI in a $26 million deal. The acquisition was the biggest in the history of CMP Technology's Electronics Group (which includes TechOnline and EETimes) and marries SI's expertise in the technical investigation of ICs and electronic systems with CMP's electronics media and services. It also caps a four-year working relationship between the two companies that culminated recently with the popular Apple iPhone and gaming-platform teardowns for TechOnline and EETimes.

"There's clearly a connection between Semiconductor Insights' capabilities and the audience we reach," said Paul Miller, president of CMP's Electronics Group. Markey said the acquisition will help bring SI's core expertise to a broader engineering audience and will further opportunities for the use of integrated video and multimedia capabilities.

Teardowns play to heart of engineer
For many electronic engineers, the acquisition of 'business intelligence' began at a very early stage with their first look inside the back of a glowing vacuum-tube TV or the first transistor radio. "It appeals to the very nature of the engineer," said Miller. "What's inside? What makes things work? This is how many got into engineering."

While engineers will continue to perform rudimentary teardowns themselves every day, companies such as SI and Portelligent have turned the practice into an art form with two completely different approaches, with minor overlap. Portelligent focuses on system-level teardowns of mobile and consumer devices ranging from handsets to game systems!with the odd fish-finder or Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner thrown in. With its approach, it can distill information related to product cost, system architecture, supply chain and technology innovation. While anyone can take apart a system, Carey said that, "Our strengths are depth, breadth, completeness and accuracy. We apply a decade of experience in methodology to try to get it right." While Carey points out that, "with the scope of data collected we're never perfect", it is the often-difficult collection of reliable, business-critical, data that he says distinguishes professional companies from the more-casual teardown efforts populating the web.

For its part, SI has carved a niche for itself reverse engineering ICs and performing everything from circuit extraction to patent infringement research. Though some cry foul and questioning the legality of reverse engineering, Markey stipulates that the practice is well known and protected under the U.S. Chip Protection Act of 1984. "It might seem counterintuitive, but you can't protect your IP [intellectual property] without doing the [reverse] engineering," she said. Using advanced preparation techniques and cutting-edge equipment, the company can look at a device to extract information pertaining to structure, functionality, circuit-design techniques, performance and estimated cost. "We can also check to see if a company has done what they said they would in a press release two years ago," said Markey.

Though many companies go out of their way to prevent reverse engineering of their chips, including self-destruct mechanisms, Markey is confident that her team will not be thwarted. "Everyone that's ever challenged us that 'their device is unhackable' has been proven wrong." In addition, industry groups are intent on encrypting chip and possibly die markings. This could further complicate the job of identifying ICs for the lay person!and potentially add more value to what SI can do.

With offices in Canada, Japan and Warsaw, Poland, SI has established a global presence!and perspective. "The U.S. is very assertive when it comes to IPJapan takes more of a defensive position," said Markey. While the Japanese are more likely to do complete analysis of every competitive chip, this contrasts with Silicon Valley where Markey said there's a "not invented here" mentality where the engineers are less inclined to think there's much to learn from a competitor's design. Europe's attitude lies "somewhere in between."

Teardown opportunities abundant
While Portelligent and SI, along with competitors such as iSuppli and Chipworks, have put many years into refining the art of the teardown, there are many opportunities yet to taken advantage of. One opportunity lies in the sheer wealth of information that can be gleaned. "It never ceases to amaze me how many facets there are," said Carey. "There's almost never too much information," referring to the possibility of going beyond the electronics into the packaging and materials and structure. "The universe of teardowns is large still."

Though the opportunities are broad, Carey did point to software teardowns as a 'hole' yet to be covered. But the difficulties are many, starting with the potential for it to be a legal landmine. Beyond that are the difficulties associated with code extraction from flash that may have an encrypted interface. Then there's the problem of "just decompiling and making sense of it," said Carey.

From SI's point of view, Markey said, "most prospective clients find software relatively easy to design around. As such, this has limited our external market for such capabilities to date." The exception is smart card analyses. "We conduct security analyses to determine if/how easy the code from the secure microcontroller can be extracted (i.e. hacked). Customers of record include Visa and Mastercard."

- Patrick Mannion

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