A Visit to Uniquify -- Unique and Impressive
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A Visit to Uniquify -- Unique and Impressive

Introduction

"And now for something completely different!" That line from the erstwhile Monty Python TV show often occurs to your writer after a steady diet of public EDA company reports for several consecutive months. OK, maybe not 'completely different'...this is the EDACafe.com Newsletter, after all!  

As an aside, this writer's all-time favorite line from any movie is, "You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow," from a very young (19) and beautiful Lauren Bacall (Slim) to 44-year-old Humphrey Bogart (Steve) in the 1944 movie, "To Have and Have Not."

But I digress...

"So how 'bout a private EDA company?" The writer often relies on one Nanette V. Collins for such contacts; she always seems to be connected to many private EDA companies. And she comes through again, "How about Uniquify?" I say, "Sounds good, Weren't they at DAC this year? Let's go meet 'em!"

Tucked away in a low-slung office building on Scott Boulevard in Santa Clara, deep in the heart of Silicon Valley, is Uniquify, a uniquely Silicon Valley enterprise with the goal to create new semiconductor chips "today" faster and more easily than "yesterday." It is building a formidable reputation as a Semiconductor Intellectual Property (IP) and Application Specific Integrated Circuit/System on Chip (ASIC/SoC) design and manufacturing services provider.

Uniquify usually deals with its customers' most complex chips and SoCs. The term you’ll hear from Uniquify to define these new chips is "Super SoCs" or "SSoCs." These complex silicon devices often contain multiple processors, special purpose processing engines, on-chip networks, multiple memories and many different peripheral and I/O functions.

Uniquify has close to 100 mostly technical employees. And most surprising of all, the Company is completely self-funded, bootstrapped from the start, and profitable. Its current office on Scott Boulevard is overcrowded, but a move to a larger and more spacious facility is imminent.

While Uniquify’s bursting at the seams, no one working or visiting there seems to mind. As he was giving his visitors an introductory tour, Bob Smith, Uniquify’s vice president of marketing, said that Uniquify’s corporate culture is definitely one of fun, but that everyone works hard, gets top-notch results and then "plays hard" when the day is over.

Bob Smith VP Marketing

 

Bob Smith was MAGMA’s first vice president of marketing, and he has enjoyed a long and distinguished career in Silicon Valley. He is also co-proprietor of Jazz Cellars, a San Francisco winery producing handcrafted, small-lot single varietal, single vineyard wines.

 

Uniquify was founded in 2005 by three chip design experts who came in as a ready-made team, as the trio had worked together for eight years doing multiple hardware designs at several ASIC/SoC companies. According to Bob Smith, Uniquify has grown since inception at a CAGR exceeding 40%. Fiscal Year 2012 was a record year for revenue and profit. Business is great, he said, estimating that the size of the ASIC/SoC/SSoC design, IP, manufacturing services market exceeds $5 billion.

 

Uniquify’s President and CEO is Josh Lee, a co-founder and entrepreneur known for "an easy smile and killer vision."


Josh Lee

Lee attended the University of California at Berkeley, graduating in 1992 with Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Another founder is Sam Kim, today serving as vice president and CTO.

Venkat Iyer is Uniquify’s third founder and shares the title of CTO with Sam. Venkat’s focus is on system and logic design, while Sam focuses on the physical design and ASIC/SoC operations.

Sam Kim

 

Venkat Iyer

The founders began offering ASIC and SoC design services business back in 2005 and, with their years of experience, expertise and solid reputations, were busy from the start. About 18 months later, they expanded into developing high-performance IP based on their vision that the use of IP would become pervasive in SoC design. This early vision provided the foundation for what the company now refers to as its “ideas2silicon” platform services. More on that later.

Venkat Iyer (R) is Uniquify’s third founder and shares the role of CTO with Sam Kim (L). Josh Lee (C) is telling Venkat a humorous story about Sam.

 

Moving into IP

Uniquify's move into IP was a good one. A recent study found that the IP market is growing faster than the semiconductor market –– twice as fast, in fact.

Moving into the IP space included the development of a DDR memory controller subsystem IP that’s become one of Uniquify’s chief differentiators. Josh Lee had an idea prior to starting Uniquify on how to improve upon DDR memory controller subsystem IP to solve the fundamental problem of system yield and reliability. (DDR = double data rate --> see list of common abbreviations at the end of the article).

As Bob Smith noted, DDR memory chips need to be fast and small to keep costs down, which means that the onboard timing interface needs to be kept as simple as possible. Of course, the memory suppliers offer timing specs, he said, but the job of controlling the timing interface is left up to the DDR memory control subsystem that is part of the host ASIC or SoC.

“Since no two systems behave exactly alike, the engineering team needs to calibrate the DDR timing interface such that it will accommodate the differences in timing behavior between the host ASIC or SoC, the board and package interface and the DDR memory. This is done by manually working through a number of samples and picking a set of calibration points that are broad enough to cover the expected timing variations. Unfortunately, this manual process can take upwards of several weeks, often impacting the project schedule and still result in low system yield and reliability.”

Further confirming that something needed to change, Uniquify designers had to factor in an interface to every DDR memory controller subsystem chip for each chip design project. Josh Lee’s idea went from inspiration to reality as the Uniquify team innovated an efficient piece of logic for the DDR memory controller IP to measure the timing window and automatically adjust it for each system.

Uniquify’s DDR IP has SCL (self-calibrating logic) and DSCL (dynamic self-calibrating logic) for real-time calibration to accommodate both static (SCL) and dynamic (DSCL) variations in the system operating environment. As a result, the DDR memory subsystem timing calibration can be applied at system power-up and during system operation. This helps enhance device and system yield and reliability, reducing the effects of variation and maintaining DDR memory system performance as temperature and supply voltages fluctuate during system operation. In 2011, it was granted a U.S. patent.

Ubiquify says readers should stay tuned to this topic. As the next generation of DDR4 memory becomes more widely available, Uniquify’s SCL and DSCL DDR memory controller IP may become de facto industry standards as the need to increase system yield and reliability becomes more pronounced.

Uniquify’s ideas2silicon

Today, Uniquify has a three-part strategy. [1] A design services division, [2] the IP division that complements design services, and [3] a design services platform or what EDACafe readers may remember as "the old-school turnkey business model." Or, as Bob Smith described it, “We can start from the beginning by developing a specification, crafting the RTL code and then work our way through logic design, physical chip design, including IP, and then work all the way through to the foundry and test chips. We are flexible and set up to do as much, or as little of the process as our customer needs us to be.”

Uniquify has also moved into manufacturing services, providing a complete solution from specification development to delivery of packaged, tested parts.

At this year’s DAC 49 in San Francisco, Uniquify unveiled its ideas2silicon platform for rapid selection and implementation of IP to shorten time to market for SSoCs. SSoCs, as noted above, is a huge market and even bigger opportunity for Uniquify. More on the definition of SSoC later in the profile; I promise!

Below is a photograph of the Uniquify Team as they exhibited at this year’s Design Automation Conference, launching ideas2silicon. This illustration served as the backdrop to Uniquify’s booth. From all reports, the Uniquify team was kept busy through the entire conference meeting attendees.


ideas2silicon is a comprehensive design services platform that turns the turnkey design services model upside down, by offering faster turnaround, lower costs and a transparent business model that gives project teams complete visibility into the cost structure. It provides a rapid solution for quickly assembling IP blocks into a base system that can be used to validate the customer’s value-added logic, IP and software.

According to Uniquify literature: By combining design and leading-edge process expertise with manufacturing services and an extensive IP portfolio, Uniquify offers a turnkey solution, unlike any other, that spans chip specification and design through volume delivery of packaged and tested parts.

"Uniquify believes that openness is the secret to building long-term and successful partnerships," suggested Bob Smith and Josh Lee.

Other design services companies –– and there are a few others in Silicon Valley –– live by what Bob Smith and Josh Lee claim is the old ASIC business model, with neither flexibility nor transparency, an outdated, outmoded and obsolete model. These companies cannot successfully compete with Uniquify.

In essence, the 'OLD-MODEL' customer is given a single price and has no way to judge whether that price is reasonable or not. Uniquify provides its partners with a full breakdown of costs, including its fair margin on services, procurement and management. This gives its customers a full view into costs and tradeoffs that can be made in a project.

As the EDACafe.com team listens to the words of Josh Lee and Bob Smith, we can’t help thinking that Uniquify treats its customers as partners. When the writer asks them if this is an accurate assumption, they wholeheartedly agree. Lee added, "We are not a job-shop or contractor outsourcing provider. We closely engage as a partner with our customers to give us total alignment on the end goal.”


Perseus, a Not-So-Secret Uniquify Strategy

One not-so-secret strategy is Uniquify's proprietary Perseus design management system. Perseus enables Uniquify to deliver fast, repeatable and consistent turnaround on complex ASIC, SoC and SSoC design projects that often include multiple processors, special-purpose processing engines, on-chip networks, memories and different peripheral and I/O functions.

The genesis of Perseus goes back even further than the founding of the company itself. The founders had created bits and pieces of software that would eventually be upgraded to become Perseus to help them with their design projects. Over the past eight years, Uniquify has developed Perseus into a totally new full-fledged design management system that automates and manages all aspects of a design project including analysis, build, data and monitoring.

Every Uniquify project is managed under the Perseus system. At the beginning of a project, it is used to analyze the design and rapidly pinpoint areas of the design that will be the most challenging, allowing the design team to focus on them. Intelligent management of resources allows many projects to be worked on in parallel, reducing schedule times and lowering costs for Uniquify partners.

Uniquify University 

Another aspect to Uniquify’s success is its internal training program, dubbed “Uniquify University.” While conventional wisdom suggests that complex SoC and SSoC designs can only be undertaken by engineers with long years of experience, Uniquify takes a different view. Although each design is different, the majority of a given design can be handled by designers early in their careers provided that they have received the proper training and use a deterministic and convergent ASIC/SoC management system such as Perseus. A small number of experts are still required on the team to focus on the toughest design problems and to provide project management.

Uniquify builds its teams by recruiting new graduates from top California engineering schools. After arriving at Uniquify, the new grads enter the internal training program (Uniquify University) where they not only learn about best chip design practices but are also given other relevant background in such topics as device physics.

Most important, they are taught how to use the Perseus system, the backbone of all design activity at Uniquify. Each project team is comprised of recently trained designers along with a few senior staff to manage the project and provide expertise. The outcome is a highly trained and motivated hardware design team that works hard, gets top-notch results and plays hard when the day’s over.

Results are impressive. Over the past eight years, Uniquify has completed hundreds of customer designs. “We kept up with the pace of increasing semiconductor complexity by developing expertise in the latest process nodes such as 28nm, as well as building a reputation for implementing low-power designs,” remarked Josh Lee, with some pride.

 

Aligning to Meet Common Goals

Customer engagements are kept hush-hush in the design services business, but Uniquify tells me that their engagements span customers in North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia, including some of the largest names in consumer electronics. The company has strong relationships with the leading semiconductor foundries including TSMC (it’s a TSMC Design Center Alliance partner), Samsung, GLOBALFOUNDRIES and SMIC and works with a number of leading packaging and test vendors.

Design teams not only need discreet partners, but competent ones as well. Uniquify has been at this business for eight years and has a track record of success based, what Josh Lee and Bob Smith call solid business acumen and a solutions-based approach.

Uniquify’s approach to its business plays off the concept of  “partnering” as opposed to being just a “hired gun.” The design services industry is rife with small companies that place contract engineers and designers on-site at the customer and charge an hourly, weekly or monthly rate, they recalled. In this approach, the service company is not well-aligned with the project success –– resources are paid for by the customer whether or not the project is successful. The service provider is not on the hook to deliver and project management is solely the responsibility of the customer.

Uniquify’s approach closely aligns both Uniquify and the partner company toward the common goal of delivering a successful chip project where the Uniquify team and the customer team become one team. “A common theme that runs through each project is the close cooperation, communication and joint problem solving that distinguishes Uniquify as a true partner,” Josh Lee commented. “This is why we enjoy such a high level of repeat projects with many of our customers.”

As per Josh Lee and Bob Smith, design teams need to rely on third-party IP to get their projects completed on time and within budget. The IP content of today’s chips can be 50-70% or more driven by global competition for electronic consumer devices. As a result, companies such as Uniquify are thriving due to expanding their services to offer a more complete solution to address the needs of these sophisticated buyers. After all, IP is not the end goal. The end goal is a working chip that adds value to an electronic system.

Uniquify has invested in developing a larger portfolio of high-performance, silicon-proven IP building blocks than just the DDR memory controller subsystem IP that is poised to become a de facto industry standard. Add on an experienced team with expertise in design, IP design, qualification and integration and manufacturing

operations and the ideas2silicon offering that spans chip specification, design and IP integration through the volume delivery of packaged and tested parts.

The EDACafe team is getting tired but excited at this juncture.

As we huddle over a conference room table wrapping up our discussion, Josh Lee does some quick, back-of-a-napkin calculations and figures that Uniquify’s designs have been implemented in over 50 consumer electronics devices. Those include flat-screen TVs, mobile phones, networking devices, cameras and many other consumer products. Each of these are used by hundreds of thousands, even millions of consumers. Uniquify has a long reach.

 

Uniquely Silicon Valley: Industry Trend-Setter, Thought Leader

We’ve covered quite a bit of ground in this profile of a uniquely Silicon Valley company. By now, the more cynical reader is probably thinking that Uniquify happens to be in the right place at the right time. You may be right up to a point, but we see an innovative trendsetter. Uniquify’s three-point strategy proves there’s more than sheer luck at work here.

I’m now ready as well to deem Uniquify an industry thought leader, moving our industry’s taxonomy from the traditional “system-on-chip” to “Super SoC.” Uniquify believes that SSoCs are the new reality for design teams working on the latest consumer electronic devices.

According to Uniquify and industry chroniclers, an SoC is a device with on-board processor, memory, a special-purpose processing engine or engines, peripheral interfaces and I/O. The new generation of SSoC devices, as suggested by Uniquify, has multiple processors, along with special purpose processing engines, on-chip networks, multiple memories and many different peripheral and I/O functions. SSoC devices are being fabricated at 40nm processes, with the latest generation being implemented in 28nm and moving to 20nm. Another point Uniquify makes when defining SSoC is increasing IP content in SSoCs, makes them far more complex to design and implement than SoCs.

Of course, Josh Lee and Bob Smith will advise developing a well-defined SSoC design methodology and carefully selecting the right IP and design services partner is critical to success.

From what we’ve seen, Uniquify should be the top of every short list.

Conclusion

As the EDACafe.com contingent of two walk out of the Uniquify office and head to rhe writer's car, we make mental notes to keep an eye on this company because we believe it’s going places and not just to a new corporate headquarters. When we check in again on Uniquify, the company will be in larger office space in Silicon Valley, and may even be ready to expand yet again. The change in locale, however, won’t diminish the fun, or a corporate culture of hard work, top-notch results and play when the day’s over. That’s why Uniquify is uniquely Silicon Valley.

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Once again the IBSystems Contributing Editor and EDA Commentary writer is deeply indebted to Ms. Nanette V. Collins for her role in the topic choice, the choice of company to visit, and composing the first draft of this article.  This makes at least the fourth collaboration, and each one is better than the last.
Thank you, Nanette.


Acronyms:

ASIC: Application Specific Integrated Circuit

CAGR: Compound Annual Growth Rate

CEO: Chief Executive Officer

CTO: Chief Technical Officer

DAC: Design Automation Conference

DDR: Double Data Rate, a class of memory chips

DSCL: Dynamic Self-Calibrating Logic

nm: Nanometer

I/O: Input/Output

IP: Intellectual Property

RTL: Register Transfer Level

SCL: Self-Calibrating Logic

SoC: System on Chip

SSoC: Super System on Chip

TSMC: Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company

TV: Television

 

Past Uniquify coverage:

1. GSA Forum: “Consumer Electronic Demand Driving Fundamental Shifts in Semiconductor Design and Intellectual Property” by Josh Lee

http://www.gsaglobal.org/forum/2012/1/articles_uniquify.asp

 

2. GABEonEDA: “The Business of IP” by Josh Lee

http://us2.campaign-archive2.com/?u=69e20a8a97aa48d2e3161e096&id=de9ac5a626#article2

 

3. GABEonEDA: “The Move to IP Standards” by Josh Lee

http://www.gabeoneda.com/newsletter/pdf/2012/04

 

4. GABEonEDA: “DAC Offers Visibility and Priceless Opportunities” by Bob Smith

http://us2.campaign-archive1.com/?u=69e20a8a97aa48d2e3161e096&id=66d2f3a0b4#article4

 

5. EDACafe Blog What would Joe do? Uniquify: “The Vision is crystal clear” by Peggy Aycinena

http://www10.edacafe.com/blogs/whatwouldjoedo/2012/05/31/uniquify-the-vision-is-crystal-clear/?interstitial_displayed=Yes

 

6. EE Times: “Self-Calibrating logic IP for DDR addresses dynamic variation” by Kristin Lewotsky

  http://www.eetimes.com/electronics-products/memory-products/4237909/Self-calibrating-logic-IP-for-DDR-addresses-dynamic-variation

 

7. EETimes: “Gearing Up for DAC – IP, Flows and Services” by Brian Bailey

http://www.eetimes.com/electronics-blogs/other/4373964/Gearing-Up-for-DAC---IP--Flows-and-Services

 

8. DeepChip: INDUSTRY GADFLY: "My Cheesy Must See List for DAC 2012" by John Cooley

http://www.deepchip.com/gadfly/gad053112.html

 

9. EE Journal: “Keeping DDR Performance Fresh” by Bryon Moyer

http://www.eejournal.com/index.php/blog/keeping-ddr-performance-fresh/

 

10. EE Journal Fish Fry: “The Delicate Divide Between Dreams and Reality,” by Amelia Dalton

http://www.eejournal.com/index.php/blog/keeping-ddr-performance-fresh/

ASIC/SoC design and manufacturing services provider.

 

 

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ABOUT THE WRITER:

Since 1996, Dr. Russ Henke has been active full time as president of HENKE ASSOCIATES, a San Francisco Bay Area high-tech business & management consulting firm. The number of client companies served by HENKE ASSOCIATES during those years now numbers more than fifty. Engagement lengths have varied from a few weeks up to ten years and beyond.

During his previous corporate career, Henke operated sequentially on "both sides" of MCAE/MCAD and EDA, as a user and as a vendor. He's a veteran corporate executive from Cincinnati Milacron (Research Scientist), SDRC (President & COO), Schlumberger Applicon (Executive VP), Gould Electronics (President & General Manager), ATP (Chairman and CEO), and Mentor Graphics (VP & General Manager).

Henke is a Fellow of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) and served on the SME International Board of Directors. Henke was also a board member of SDRC, PDA, ATP, and the MacNeal Schwendler Corporation, and he currently serves on the board of Stottler Henke Associates, Inc.

Henke is also a member of the IEEE and a Life Fellow of ASME International.

In April 2006, Dr. Henke received the 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award from the CAD Society, presented by CAD Society president Jeff Rowe at COFES2006 in Scottsdale, AZ. In February 2007, Henke became affiliated with Cyon Research's select group of experts on business and technology issues as a Senior Analyst. This Cyon Research connection aids and supplements Henke's ongoing, independent consulting practice (HENKE ASSOCIATES).

Dr. Henke was also a contributing editor of the EDACafé.com EDA WEEKLY from November 01, 2009 until March 31, 2012, posting thirty-two EDA WEEKLY articles during that period; URL's available. Effective April 01, 2012 he contributes to EDA COMMENTARY and MCAD COMMENTARY, and also writes a periodic blog for EDACafe.com and/or MCADCafe.com.

Since May 2003 HENKE ASSOCIATES has also published more than 100 independent commentary articles on MCAD, PLM, EDA and Electronics IP on IBSystems' MCADCafé and EDACafé. Such Commentaries are now part of the EDA and/or MCAD COMMENTARY entries.

Further information on HENKE ASSOCIATES, and URL's for past Commentaries, WEEKLIES, etc., are available at

http://www.henkeassociates.net

March 31, 2012 marked the 16th Anniversary of the founding of HENKE ASSOCIATES.