Researchers look to get rid of chip debugging problems once and for all

Researchers said today they have developed a chip-debugging program that promises to reduce silicon problem resolution from days to hours while saving potentially millions of dollars.

The technology, developed at the University of Michigan, is called FogClear and uses puzzle-solving search algorithms to diagnose problems early on and automatically adjust the blueprint for the chip. Fixing design bugs and wrong wire connections in computer chips after they’ve been fabricated in silicon is a tedious, trial-and-error process that often costs companies millions of dollars and months of time-to-market, the researchers said.

FogClear is a computer-aided design tool that automates the debugging process. It can catch subtle errors that several months of simulations would miss, researchers claim. Some bugs might take days or weeks before causing any miscomputation, and they might only do so under very rare circumstances, such as operating at high temperature.

The new application searches for and finds the simplest way to fix a bug, the one that has the least impact on the working parts of the chip. The solution usually requires reconnecting certain wires, and does not affect transistors, researchers said.

According to the UM paper titled “Automating Post-Silicon Debugging and Repair:” Key innovations in our techniques include support for the unusual physical constraints of post-silicon debugging and ability to repair functional errors through subtle modifications of an existing layout. Our proposed post-silicon debugging methodology (FogClear) can also repair some electrical errors while preserving functional correctness. Thus, by automating this traditionally manual debugging process, our contributions promise to reduce engineers' debugging effort. As our empirical results show, we can repair more than 70% of the benchmarks automatically.Currently chip design is first validated in simulations and when a draft is cast in silicon, the first prototype undergoes additional verification with more realistic applications. If a bug is detected at this stage, an engineer must narrow down the cause of the problem and then craft a fix that does not disrupt the delicate balance of all other components of the system. This can take several days. Engineers then produce new prototypes incorporating all the fixes. This process repeats until they arrive at a prototype that is free of bugs. For modern chips, the process of making sure a chip is free of bugs takes as much time as production, researchers said.

Saving time and money in the chip-making process is a hot topic today.  Last week IBM announced a semiconductor wafer reclamation process that removes chip circuitry with an abrasive pad and water, saving money and leaving the silicon in better shape for reuse in solar panels or other duties. Enabling reuse is crucial because IBM estimates that approximately three million silicon wafers worldwide are scrapped each year by the semiconductor industry - representing a significant solar recycling opportunity.

Meanwhile, NASA researchers have designed and built a new circuit chip that can take the heat of a blast furnace and keep on performing. Silicon Carbide (SiC) chips can operate in 600 degrees Celsius or 1,112 degrees Fahrenheit where conventional silicon-based electronics -- limited to about 350 C -- would fail.In the past, integrated circuit chips could not withstand more than a few hours of high temperatures before degrading or failing. This chip exceeded 1,700 hours of continuous operation at 500 degrees Celsius - a breakthrough that represents a 100-fold increase in what has previously been achieved, NASA said.

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