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IBM, EU team up to improve chip reliability

IBM Research is partnering with businesses and universities from the European Union to help semiconductor companies create more reliable and efficient chips.

IBM announced Thursday that it's teaming up with companies and universities from the European Union to improve the reliability and efficiency of semiconductor chips. By creating a new type of technology to better test microchips for flaws, the parties involved hope to cut the time and cost required to create each chip.

Joining forces to create an EU-funded organization called the Diamond consortium, IBM and the other major players plan to develop a more orderly and integrated approach to check for bugs in a chip. The goal of the new system will be to track down and correct errors on all levels, from the initial design of the chip to the final silicon layout.

"Designing a microelectronic chip is very expensive, and the design costs are the greatest threat to continuation of the semiconductor industry's phenomenal growth," said Jaan Raik, senior researcher at Tallinna Tehnikaulikool and coordinator of the Diamond project, in a statement. "The increasing gap between the complexity of new systems and the productivity of system design methods can only be mitigated by developing new and more competent design methods and tools."

Currently, around 70 percent of the effort in designing a chip is devoted to debugging, said IBM. Most of that effort is geared toward finding the source of the fault and correcting it. Soft errors are particularly hard to handle and difficult to predict. Soft errors are temporary flaws that creep in due to external factors, such as the effects of cosmic radiation, a growing problem especially as chips get smaller and their densities increase.

The new technology should be better able to predict soft errors by using improved and dedicated detection methods, noted IBM, which could cut the time needed to fix these specific flaws by 23 percent.

Finding and correcting flaws in a chip is expected to cost manufacturers $34.5 million per chip this year. The Diamond group is hoping to slash the overall time spent on debugging by 50 percent, potentially cutting a chip's design costs by $17.25 million. As a result, the time required to design a chip and launch it to the market should fall as well.

If the new project is successful, it would also improve the reliability of chips and computers on the consumer end. Research from Google late last year found that computer memory often yields a greater number of errors than expected and previously reported.

The Diamond project has been set up as a three-year plan. Besides IBM, the other partners include Ericsson in Sweden, Tallinna Tehnikaulikool in Estonia, Linkopings Universitet in Sweden, Universitat Bremenin in Germany, Technische Universitat Graz in Austria, TransEDA Systems in Hungary, and the Testonica Lab in Estonia.