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VSI alliance: strange bed-fellows?

An alliance that's still taking form stands as an example of how technology companies are willing to abandon competitive differences in the pursuit of better, more efficient technology. That doesn't mean they're really eager about it, though.

It isn't easy for 36 companies to admit when they're wrong.

But an alliance announced last week and still taking form stands as an example of how PC technology companies are willing to abandon competitive differences in the pursuit of better, more efficient technology. That doesn't mean they're really eager about it, though.

The Virtual Socket Interface (VSI) alliance, one of the largest formed within the technology community, is comprised of 36 companies and draws from four industry segments: semiconductor companies, electronic design automators (EDAs) that design system chips, systems companies, and intellectual-property providers.

The goal is to create semiconductor chips with one intellectual property standard that can accommodate numerous proprietary designs, basically creating a Lego-like system that will allow design blocks to snap right on to one chip and be easy to mix and match. This way, better, faster, more complex chips can get designed in less time and with less browbeating between competitors. The name for the idea: "system-on-a-chip."

"There's this huge issue that there's a new generation of technology that's out there, but can't be leveraged with the way we're doing things now," said Steven Glaser, marketing and development director with EDA firm Cadence Design Systems (CDN).

With a standard in place for using designs from multiple vendors, end users may find that semiconductor chips can undertake more complex tasks and perform them faster in a range of products, such as snazzier TV set-top boxes.

Members from the four industries involved in the alliance also stand to benefit. Semiconductor companies will be able to find new uses for their chips. Systems companies, meanwhile, will be able to draw from a number of intellectual property providers and create new cutting-edge technology that they wouldn't have been able to achieve by themselves or by glueing multiple chips on the same motherboard. Intellectual property companies will be able to reduce their costs as a result of standardization. The EDA industry will be able to provide improved service to their customers, namely the chip makers, that need semiconductor designs.

So why didn't the VSI alliance coalesce earlier?

"Before, there weren't enough companies selling reusable hardware to have the critical mass needed to make it a big deal," said Brian Barrera, director of marketing and intellectual property for alliance member Mentor Graphics (MENT).

Mistrust had also been another hurdle. Some companies had been reluctant to give up market share by developing a standard that threatened to replace the investments made in a proprietary design.

"The EDA industry has never been known for cooperation," said Gary Smith, an analyst with market research firm Dataquest.

But Smith added that the industry has been recently pushed by customers who want more from their semiconductor chips, and tight time-to-market constraints that made it difficult for one provider to fill a chip with a variety of functions.

That kind of pressure led Cadence in February to begin meeting with a number of system chip companies to figure out what could be done to leverage contributions from several designers on a single chip design.

In March, Cadence presented an intellectual property perspective report and met with a number of U.S. and foreign companies. A few companies immediately jumped aboard, but some were still resistant, Glaser said.

"Some companies felt strongly agreeable. Others felt strongly in one pocket of the organization but other pockets didn't, and some wanted to hold onto the old model," Glaser said.

In May, the effort to move the industry toward a system-on-a-chip got a tremendous boost during a series of forums and conferences, said Glaser, industry representatives and analysts.

"I think a number of people realized for the first time that we had to do something about this," said Jake Buurma, vice president of engineering at semiconductor group Toshiba. "After most of us in the industry met three times at these trade shows and the same issue was always brought up, we figured we needed to meet on a more regular basis," Buurma said.

By about mid-July, the semiconductor industry began to align themselves with the cause.

"People would call me and ask, 'Is this thing for real?,'" Smith said. "Basically they wanted to know if they could trust these guys and if they did, could they solve the technological problems?"

He must have convinced them because by August, 36 were willing to publicly back the initiative. While computer industry alliances have an extremely sketchy history of success, the whole exercise moved chip design closer to the goal of being able to upgrade technology faster by using different designs from different vendors on the same chip.

"Before, the industry was a couple of years from hitting the wall, and now it's a couple of inches," Buurma added.