chip design software


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The US government is drawing a new card from its repressive arsenal against the Chinese technological champions: blocking exports and the use of EDA software. Essential processor design programs that are primarily maintained by U.S. or related companies.

In its fight to contain China’s technological rise, the US is moving to a larger caliber. Having thwarted Huawei’s chip ambitions by stripping it of TSMC’s Taiwanese factories, after banning all exports of the costly Dutch latest-generation chip engravers, the US government is deploying a new weapon: processor design software. And after “handling” with Huawei, the US is targeting a new technology champion. Not a smartphone vendor this time, but a company called Loongson, which is being tipped to ramp up the country’s CPU independence. And who has been placed on a blacklist, which denies him access to American technologies.

Read also: LoongArch, China’s Sovereign CPU Architecture (April 2021)​

We already told you about this company in 2021, as part of the launch of its processor. Built on the ashes of a defunct microarchitecture called MIPS, LoongArch poses some sort of threat to the US, as it doesn’t rely on Intel’s x86 or UK ARM. And since it’s owned and closed, unlike RISC-V, there are rarely any records about it. What embarrasses the US in this area? Getting Loongson up and running could officially allow China to get powerful chips for developing weapons. And unofficially, growing a potential competitor to Intel and AMD could challenge US dominance of PC processors.

The American drug of coercion, you may have never heard of it. And yet it is an almost “atomic” weapon in the design of advanced processors.

EDA software, the other fundamental building block controlled by the US

Screenshot of one of the software tools from Synopsys, the world leader in EDA.

Screenshot of one of the software tools from Synopsys, the world leader in EDA.

If the world of semiconductors is multiple with especially chip manufacturing focused on Asia then the US has control tools. They master certain micro-architectures, can count on their geopolitical weight to bend their partners (ARM in the United Kingdom, ASML in the Netherlands, etc.) thanks to the weight of their patents. But they also have almost complete control over an element that is too often overlooked, but takes center stage: the software ofElectronic design automation called “EDA” (Computer Aided Design for Electronics in French).


The major companies developing circuit design tools are all American. And most of the others come from countries associated with the US.

Far from being an accessory to chip manufacturing, EDA software is absolutely essential. It is their strength that enables the design of increasingly complex chips that now integrate several tens, even hundreds of billions of transistors. They are the ones that enable Intel, Qualcomm and other Apple to design SoCs, these “super” chips that integrate very different logical processors (CPU, GPU, NPU, ISP, etc.) that must be interconnected with circuits on a scale of one billionth of a meter. If the EDA software market is fragmented into several players who will share a $12 billion pie by 2023, a simple look at the big names in the industry – Synopsys, Cadence, Keysight, Ansys, etc. – allows us to understand that the US is insanely dominating. And if the software isn’t American, it’s German, British, French, or Japanese, all allies in the US’s sphere of influence.

Read also: China suspected of stealing the plans of the most precious machine in the world (February 2023)​

You got it: With its legal mechanisms to block the export of sensitive technologies, the US government has a powerful weapon at its disposal to hinder the progress of the Chinese company. And this in several ways: in terms of development, by blocking Loongson’s design licenses. But also by blocking the use of these licenses by manufacturers. After all, this software is not only used on the design side – the drawing – of the chips, but they are also connected to the machines of the chip manufacturers. For example, the Chinese SMIC, which produces the chips for Loongson, could be denied a license to work with its partner. The American arm is therefore very long when it comes to chip production. Protecting and controlling the market with its own champions – you have to admit it. But also for safety reasons.

The development of weapons, a realistic argument

The Chinese People's Army's WU-14/DF-ZF missile

The WU-14/DF-ZF of the People’s Army of China is a supersonic missile, part of the development of which was made possible thanks to the use of US software. CCTV

When you design a processor, you rely on instruction sets (we’re talking ISA or IP in the jargon) that are a function of the spatial structure of the circuits. While microarchitecture designers regularly add new instructions, the fundamental structure of how they work has become standardized. And EDA software must include the specifications of each ISA. So the difficulty is twofold: to design a chip you need EDA software that is adapted – or adaptable – to your ISA. Because LoongArch was initially based on a microarchitecture called MIPS 64, American software enabled Loongson to further develop its microarchitecture. And thus giving China a set of processors over which the Americans have no vision or control.

Read also : SpaceX voluntarily obstructs Ukrainian military’s use of drones (February 2023)​

It is this lack of control that scares the United States. No doubt for good reason. Because if Uncle Sam’s country is often suspected of falsely outrageous shouting – think of the scandals surrounding weapons of mass destruction or anthrax – the technological questions raised here seem well founded. Indeed, the technological “revolutions” brought about by the Ukrainian theater (artillery assisted by civilian drones, low-cost kamikaze drones, long-range missiles such as HiMars, etc.) have indeed highlighted the importance of the new generation of electronic components.

In this area, the use of US technologies by the Chinese military is not a lie. Because there are precedents: Last October, the Washington Post revealed that the hypersonic missiles developed by the People’s Army of China were co-developed with technologies and software from US companies… Like Ansys, a company of the world’s Top 5 EDAs!

Read also: Not even China wants to sell its processors to Russia! (December 2022)​

If Loongson promised not to develop chips for military use – which is in fact true, since CPUs are intended for desktop PCs – it is by no means impossible that some of these chips could be integrated into weapons. afterwards. And it could also be that Loongson develops chips in secret, or licenses his architecture to a third party… Who would rely on his work to develop very powerful chips that can integrate missiles and other deadly equipment. . What remains difficult for the Chinese weapons manufacturers is that many very powerful chips are beyond their reach, such as certain programmable FPGA chips from Xilinx (AMD), certain Xeon from Intel or the H100 from Nvidia.

And as Loongson’s back-to-back track record shows, his chip strength is steadily increasing. The United States therefore wants to end it. And Loongson could be left without an alternative.

China isn’t ready yet (and neither are open-source tools)

Despite the Cassandras continuing to say that China is years ahead, the technological reality is that it is currently unable to develop its own chip-etching steppers – not even DUVs (less advanced than EUVs). And that it still doesn’t have a software ecosystem to design chips from A to Z. A feat only Americans can do, from both the ISAs and EDAs point of view.

Read also : The US (also) wants to block China on the quantum computer (October 2022)​

There are many open-source software out there, but they are definitely not at the level of Cadence or Synopsis software. If it seems clear that China’s semiconductor ecosystem is gradually developing various building blocks of the manufacturing development chain, from machines to software, the United States is putting another stick in the wheels of the empire’s technological development. A geopolitical choice that, however, has a double advantage: if it blocks the Chinese champions well, it encourages them to invest massively in their technological independence. This has a cost to China – temporarily (delays) and financially – but it also has a negative economic impact on US companies, losing customers. And millions, even billions of dollars. Depriving oneself of an adversary’s sources of income is also one of the aspects of the famous “war economy”.