A Canadian post-secondary school teamed up with the IT industry on Tuesday to open the first of a series of labs that will allow researchers to remotely test microelectronic equipment over the Internet.  

The University of Toronto

and CMC Microsystems welcomed several vendors as it launched its Advanced Digital Laboratory, a facility that will be used to validate microprocessor prototypes and proof-of-concepts. The U of T lab will be followed by others dedicated to mixed-signal equipment at McGill University, photonics at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., and radio frequency (RF) at the University of Manitoba. These facilities will form the basis of a $23-million National Microelectronics and Photonics Testing Collaboratory sponsored by the Ontario Innovation Trust, the Canada Foundation for Innovation and a host of other partners.

Users at the U of T lab will mount chips to be tested on RF test equipment, which can then be controlled remotely over CANARIE’s CA*Net 4 network using custom-developed software. The collaboratory’s resources will be open via the Web to 21 Canadian universities by the time it is completed, officials said.

Glenn Gulak, principal investigator at the lab and a professor in U of T’s engineering and computer science department, said the lab has already been used to develop a cryptographic processor on behalf of Fujitsu in Japan that could be used in contactless smart cards. Future projects include the development of 60 GHz radio baseband for Gigabit Wireless Ethernet and lab-on-chip applications to detect pathogens in DNA.

PC processor firms such as Intel and AMD use expensive equipment from Agilent Technologies and Credence to test their products before they hit the market. One of the U of T lab’s benefits, said CMC Microsystems president Brian Barge, is that graduate students will have access to the same kind of products. “It’s definitely going to speed their time to graduation,” he said.

Gulak agreed, adding that students will gain an understanding of the complete R&D life cycle that’s involved in chipmaking. “It also helps accelerate research results – publications, conferences and awards – that we need to show what we’re accomplishing,” he said.

Several Canadian semiconductor manufacturers said they welcomed the opportunity to use the lab to validate their designs. Fresco Microchip, for example, is a Toronto-based startup that is attempting to create a chip that will combine a TV tuner with a demodulator. Typically a tuner and demodulator would be about the size of a cell phone, but Fresco is hoping to capitalize on a market opportunity that would make TV programming accessible to mobile handsets and personal digital assistants, said its vice-president of IC technology, Chris Ouslis. As a young firm seeking proftibility, however, he said Fresco does not have the money to purchase or even rent the equipment that would normally be used to test its products. 

“We don’t even have the scars to know what to watch out for,” he said, adding that most testing has typically been outsourced to firms in the Far East.

David Lynch, senior vice-president and general manager of the video products division of Toronto-based Gennum Corp., said chip testing and verification becomes about eight times more complex every two years, which is about the same time used to measure Moore’s Law of doubling processor power. Gennum makes chips for handsets and flat-panel TVs.  

“You’re looking at a cube of complexity,” he said. “The world is not going to wait for us to do something. Either we’re in the flat-panel chip industry or we’re not. We’re either in the wireless industry or we’re not.”

ATI Technologies has seen some of that complexity first-hand over its 20-year history, said vice-president of engineering Raymond Li. One of the company’s first products in 1985, called the Graphics Solution, contained abut 20,000 transistors and took only three engineers to complete within 12  months. Its most recent Radeon 850XT, in contrast, contains 160 million transistors and required 200 hardware and software engineers to complete within 18 months.

“You can’t afford to take risk and have mistakes in there unless you build verification into the process,” said Li, adding that ATI spreads testing across facilities in Silicon Valley, Orlando and Toronto. 

The three other labs at Queen’s, the U of Manitoba and McGill are slated to open later this year.

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