Barred from US tech, Huawei claims to have built its own 14nm chip design suite

Huawei has reportedly completed work on electronic design automation (EDA) tools for laying out and making chips down to 14nm process nodes.

Chinese media said the platform is one of 78 being developed by the telecoms equipment giant to replace American and European chip design toolkits that have become subject to export controls by the US and others.

EDA is an umbrella term for software, hardware, and services essential to the planning, design, and production of chips. While integrated circuits were largely designed by hand decades ago, chips became so complex that computer-aided design and automation was unavoidable, generally speaking.

Huawei's EDA platform was reportedly revealed by rotating Chairman Xu Zhijun during a meeting in February, and later confirmed by media in China. The Register reached out to Huawei's PR team for comment; we'll let you know if we hear anything back.

Today, the EDA market is largely controlled by three companies: California-based Synopsys and Cadence, as well as Germany's Siemens. According to the industry watchers at TrendForce, these three companies account for roughly 75 percent of the EDA market. And this poses a problem for Chinese chipmakers and foundries, which have steadily found themselves cut off from these tools.

Synopsys and Cadence's EDA tech is already subject to several of these export controls, which were stiffened by the US Commerce Department last summer to include state-of-the-art gate-all-around (GAA) transistors.

This January, the White House also reportedly stopped issuing export licenses to companies supplying the likes of Huawei.

This is particularly troublesome for Huawei, foundry operator SMIC, and memory vendor YMTC to name a few on the US Entity List, a roster of companies Uncle Sam would prefer you not to do business with. It leaves them unable to access recent and latest technologies, at the very least. So the development of a homegrown EDA platform for 14nm chips serves as insurance in case broader access to Western production platforms is cut off entirely.

Huawei's focus on EDA software for 14nm and larger chips reflects the current state of China's semiconductor industry. State-backed foundry operator SMIC currently possesses the ability to produce 14nm chips at scale, although there have been some reports the company has had success developing a 7nm process node.

To put that in perspective, TSMC and Samsung are currently ramping up production of 3nm process tech, while Intel has said it will have a 2nm chip in production by late next year. This puts China's semiconductor industry two to three generations behind that of Taiwan, South Korea, and the US.

So, 14nm isn't cutting edge, though it's also not useless.

According to local media, Huawei's EDA platform is slated to undergo a thorough verification process later this year.

It's worth noting that Huawei isn't the only Chinese company developing an EDA platform. There's also Empyrean Technology, which according to TrendForce, has mature design software for analog circuits and flat-panel display design, but lags far behind the US when it comes to digital circuit design EDA and foundry EDA systems. ®

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