Open Architecture vs. Open Standard

Editor’s Note: I included this story, along with the other two bearing this date, October 14 (Open Qualifying Technology; Can Chips Make You a Better Person?) not because I thought they were particularly brilliant journalism, but because they bore datelines from three different countries — one from entirely separate continent — all in the same issue. Pretty cool, no? I doubt I’ll ever win a Pulitzer, but at least I can lay claim to this.

ITC Debates One for All, All For One ATE

BALTIMORE — Not only has the dust not settled in the automated test industry, but the open architecture movement has stirred it up even more.

Alas, Electronic News (the print edition): we hardly knew ye!Last year at the International Test Conference (ITC) it was evident that change was blowing in the wind. This year it would seem that the ATE industry is changing in some ways almost as much as the devices it tests.

Last year, the question was what to standardize: the test socket, the tester architecture, the tester language, EDA software, and so forth. Design-for-test (DFT) and test costs, a perennial ITC topic, was on everyone’s lips.

This year, all of the large ATE companies now have, or are migrating to, a single platform, and several have injected their platforms into the open architecture fray. NP Test became the latest ATE vendor to do both. That fray grew in scope, of course, last summer when Advantest Corp. announced the creation of the Semiconductor Test Consortium (STC), which has vowed to take the open architecture idea one step further and create an open architecture standard for the entire industry, independent of any one vendor. Teradyne Inc. founder Alex d’Arbeloff made that topic the theme of his opening keynote address, thus setting a theme for this year’s ITC.

Just where all this open architecture dust will settle and which companies will be left standing remains to be seen. In any event, the ATE industry continues to evolve.

d’Arbeloff co-founded Teradyne in 1960 and is now involved in academia at MIT. During his keynote, he took to task the open architecture standard being pushed by Advantest, Intel Corp. and others involved with the STC. This business model will cut ATE company revenue, d’Arbeloff said, and will thereby slow R&D, while it will leave the headache of system integration up to chipmakers.

“Customers, while congratulating themselves on driving test equipment down from 2 [percent] to 1.5 percent of sales, will spend 10 or 20 times that in trying to make everything work. Worst of all, the pace of technology will slow down,” d’Arbeloff said. This will in turn commoditize ATE, making it resemble the PC industry with all of its related problems, he argued.

But by leveraging R&D of all the vendors through an open standard architecture on which various third-party, plug-and-play instrument modules can be utilized, advanced modules can be brought to market much quicker, countered Sergio Perez, VP of sales for Advantest’s U.S. subsidiary.

In any event, the STC is progressing rapidly. It announced several new supply chain vendors as members and plans to unveil its proposed architecture by the middle of next year. At the same time, STC ATE vendors are developing several tester modules designed for the architecture that are being developed concurrently.

As for the major ATE vendors, Perez said there has been dialogue between them and the STC. He suggested that smaller vendors must pave the way for participation in the consortium so that the large vendors feel comfortable with the model.

The big players still have reservations. “Tell us how to do it so you feel comfortable. Don’t tell us you don’t like it, tell us specifically what you don’t like about it,” Perez said.

But customer interest remains high, according to Advantest. “Customers are down this road further than I expected,” he said.

In the meantime, the ATE industry, both vendors and customers, continues to gravitate toward single-platform systems that have an open architecture in the sense that they are open to third-party instrument suppliers; even as the architecture itself is proprietary.

“A massive platform convergence is underway. The revolution is occurring, not across the industry, but across each ATE company,” d’Arbeloff said.

NP Test Inc., formerly Schlumberger Semiconductor Solutions, announced here that it would roll out such a platform during Q1.

At the same time, NP Test announced that it was migrating the capabilities of its high-speed digital tester, the ITS 9000ZX, to its EXA3000 platform. This gives NP Test a platform scaleable from 200MHZ to 3.2Gbits/sec. data rates, with a pin-count of up to 1,280 pins, explained Jean-Luc Pelissier, VP and general manager of NP Test.

“[Currently] some of the chipsets … are coming with fairly high-performance buses,” Pelissier said. Some of these high-end devices also require pin-count beyond the 1,024 pins commonly found on testers designed for this market segment, he added. By upgrading the EXA3000, this provides high-end performance at a relatively low price-point, he said.

But STC proponents question the proliferation of competing open architecture platforms. If a single vendor supplies scaleable testers for the multitude of devices produced by a large chip company, it puts the chipmaker at risk, Perez suggested. With a single open standard, that risk is moved, he said.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a news story written by me that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. It’s former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge). You can still see a copy of this story at EDN.

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