U-M Startup Aims to “Reveal” Design Flaws In Computer Chips

Designing a next generation computer chip can be a real pain in the…uh, hard drive.

Just ask Intel.

In January, the world’s largest maker of chips said it stopped shipments of chips that power its most advanced Sandy Bridge line of PC processors because of a design flaw, a recall Intel said would cost it about $1 billion.

“That’s kind of a bummer,” says Vimal Bhalodia, business development manager for Reveal Design Automation, a University of Michigan-bred startup.

One company’s bummer, however, is another company’s boon. Founded by recent U-M computer science graduate Zaher Andraus, Reveal has developed a way for chip designers to quickly check for bugs before manufacturers start shipping out defective devices.

Semiconductor chips essentially act as the brains of computers so any defect could cause a severe disruption in worldwide sales of PCs, video game consoles and mobile devices like smart phones and tablets.

Specifically, Andraus has created software that can greatly accelerate the process of “formal verification,” a mathematical way of proving that “chip always does what it’s supposed to do, guaranteeing there are no bugs,” Andraus says.

Reveal claims its technology is 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than any other formal verification method, allowing chip designers catch bugs within minutes and hours versus days and weeks.

“Their technology has the potential to disrupt” the industry, says Terry Cross, a prominent local technology investor, who’s interested in backing Reveal. “They are the last step in the verification food chain and they can turn cycle time from multiple weeks to days.”

“Given the cost of [chip] designers, this can strip substantial cost from the equation,” he continued. “In a complex circuit design team, it is not unusual to have a team of up to a hundred or more engineers working together, so when you can take time out of the process through faster verification, the savings are huge.”

The startup is closely working with ARM Holdings in Cambridge, UK, the world’s top chip designer, which provides significant financial support to the U-M’s computer research program.

One of Reveal’s advisors is Randal Bryant, dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science and a top expert on formal verification. For his work, Bryant recently received the A. R. Newton Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Worldwide semiconductor revenue grew an estimated 31.5 percent in 2010, as the industry surpassed the $300 billion mark for the first time in its history, according to research firm Gartner.

With Intel and chief rival AMD turning out increasingly advanced chips that can do more and do it faster, bugs and recalls are also becoming more common, Bhalodia says.

“These chips are getting ridiculously complex,” he says. “Engineers are spending less than half their time writing new code and more than 50 percent time debugging.”

Physically testing the chips for flaws takes way too long and will not fully guarantee they will perform as intended. And unlike software, companies can’t issue a patch to fix such a complex problem.

So designers have turned to formal verification in which they use mathematical models to identify flaws. But engineers can only inspect only parts of the chip at a time, which makes it slow and inefficient, Bhalodia says.

In what Andraus calls “Formal Verification 2.0,” Reveal has developed a mathematical “abstraction engine” that allows engineers to focus only on design features that impact the chip as a whole.

Instead of working piecemeal, “we want to go after the entire chip,” Andraus says.

As a result, engineers can make changes on the go instead of waiting until after they create the entire chip to spot flaws, Andraus says.

Reveal has their sights not just on high-end computers but also the fast-growing market for smartphones and tablets. In some ways, the chips that power those smaller mobile devices are even more complex because they must quickly perform a multitude of tasks while consuming less power than PCs.

Overall semiconductor revenue from mobile phones totaled $48.7 billion last year, a 23.2 percent increase from 2009, according to Gartner. In 2011, worldwide semiconductor revenue from mobile phones is projected to reach $55.4 billion, a 13.6 percent increase from last year, Gartner says.

Thanks to the success of Apple’s iPad, Gartner estimates semiconductor revenue from media tablets will grow from $2.4 billion in 2010 to $17.8 billion in 2014.

Reveal is currently raising a seed round. The company says it has already secured an undisclosed commitment from Invest Detroit’s First Step Fund. Cross, the tech investor, also says he wants to invest in the startup.

Reveal’s immediate goal is to license its technology to ARM. That will go a long way in securing industry acceptance of its technology, Andraus says.

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