The whole debacle shows, in stark detail, the benefits of open hardware

When every part is in an open schematic, when even the resin PCB is an open standard, it’s a lot harder to hide malicious components

Couple this with open firmware (and more diverse suppliers than one or two giants) and the problem is significantly diminished

Opaque tech always leaves plenty of nooks to hide nefarious things

That said, this is a well-deserved kick in the pants for Big Tech

@cypnk I agree with what you're saying in principle but in this case even though Apple's and Amazon's audit teams both knew the schematics of their server boards yet it was still notoriously difficult to identify the offending modifications.

The technology required to scan for changes like that just 'isn't there' according to one of the sources.

Diversifying suppliers would surely help but as long as those suppliers are within China, they're still vulnerable

@letthewatersroar Yes, they’ll have to be geographically distributed as well. My understanding of proprietary chipsets is that a lot of it is dedicated to obfuscation as well (to keep competitors at bay). It’s like when map companies add fake streets to catch copied data

Simpler architectures can greatly enhance security here as that would make auditing an approachable task for more people and orgs

@cypnk My concern with all this is that it'll actually force companies to go the other way and start consolidating even more infrastructure under one umbrella.

How long until we have megacorps that produce and control all the hardware AND software in their product pipeline? They'll become even more inscrutable and with the right government/lobbying efforts they'll be powerful enough to write legislation that avoids auditing entirely.

Maybe I'm getting a little black mirror but y'know...

@letthewatersroar It’s healthy to consider these possibilities

I don’t know if they’ll consolidate, but Apple and Amazon are doing this already and they’re controlling the supply every step of the way

As for legislation, they’re not going to have it as easy as they used to. As much as we make fun of a tech-illiterate congress, many of the older people are being voted out and/or retiring. Younger people are already running for office and some are winning. That’ll rattle some cages

@icedquinn @cypnk There's a pretty large market of "pure-play foundries" (e.g. TSMC, GlobalFoundries) and "fabless chip companies" (e.g. AMD, Broadcom, MediaTek, NVIDIA, Qualcomm, ARM, Marvell, Xilinx, Altera, Realtek, Atheros, US$100B in annual sales in all) which requires the foundries to share the details of their manufacturing capabilities. Also, the fabless chip companies *really* want the chips they order to not have backdoors.

@icedquinn @cypnk I think you're right. John Q. Public can do a little better — she can design and fabricate 25 instances of a chip in a 28nm process from STMicroelectronics via CMP or CMC for €12000/mm². However, I think ST does require some kind of NDA, and the highest-resolution TSMC process available through MPW services like CMP, CMC, EUROPRACTICE, and MOSIS (which no longer publishes its prices) seems to be 65 nm (US$6500/mm²). No, wait, EUROPRACTICE offers TSMC 28nm & GlobalFoundries 22nm

@icedquinn @cypnk I think you can get started at a cost of under €2000 for your first chip sample, but that's 4mm² in 0.7μm. If a transistor is 4λ×10λ (I don't know how big they are, but that's a good ballpark) that would be about 200'000 transistors, roughly the size of an 80286, or 50 6502s, but a lot faster and with a lot less space for wirebonding.

@icedquinn @cypnk On a US$100k budget (5% of the cost of a house in San Francisco) you could fabricate something in TSMC's 28nm process or GlobalFoundries's 22nm process and get within an order of magnitude of Intel's or Xilinx's density and cost structure. Thanks to the end of Dennard scaling, your chip can be just as fast as theirs even though it's bigger; 22nm memory is from 2008 and 22nm CPUs are from 2012, and 32nm CPUs are from 2010.

@icedquinn @cypnk But you'll probably need US$500K, and a couple of years, to do enough tapeouts to get your 28nm or 22nm chip to work at all. But then you have a multi-GHz chip you designed with 50 million transistors on it.

@icedquinn @cypnk Dear @matt: I'm interested to know your point of view about this thread, especially if the things I said in it about semiconductor fabrication are off-base

@kragen @icedquinn @cypnk a mask for photolithography with modern semiconductor processes costs in excess of $1M per mask, and you need lots of masks per device.

A lot of modern semiconductor processing is not documented outside of academia because they fall under trade secrets. You will find no patent for finfet transistor mfg processing for that reason.

Intel actually does foundry work now, mostly for our FPGA products, but other prods are made by us

@kragen @icedquinn @cypnk it would still cost millions of dollars in capital for even old processing hardware (and I'm talking used equipment here) for even low volume work. The lithography tools alone are worth enough to buy an office building or two

@kragen @icedquinn @cypnk depending on your needs, it might be better and cheaper to buy a FPGA, a low end controller, and EEPROM, and program the FPGA during power-on process from data stored in the EEPROM

@kragen @icedquinn @cypnk I will also say that older processes (32/22nm) still make a not-insignificant amount of money for Intel.

Think about it. The equipment is paid for (thus it's more profitable), the process is mature and robust (and therefore well understood), and less complex (cheaper for end customers).

Granted, it may not make sense to make these products in flagship fabs (like my own Fab32), but it does make sense to make them *somewhere*

@kragen @icedquinn @cypnk there is also a major, major, major difference between planar MOSFETs and finfets in terms of complexity. It doesn't make sense to use finfets in old tech nodes, but you literally cannot use planar MOSFETs in new tech nodes

@matt @kragen @icedquinn @cypnk i don't expect older silicon processes to become cheap enough for low-capital prototyping so long as the industry consolidation process continues

@matt @kragen @icedquinn @cypnk i'm very interested in organic semiconductor manufacturing because there's research happening there on low-temp solution-processed all-printed processes, which could allow for small fabs on the scale of independent book/magazine printing presses, low up-front capital requirements

@matt @kragen @icedquinn @cypnk gravure-printed ICs are becoming a reality and it's very exciting

@cascode @kragen @icedquinn @cypnk the problem with organic FETs is their low charge mobility,  20—40 cm^2/(V·s) vs Silicon, which is 500—1500 cm^2/(V·s). They aren't even in the same league when it comes to performance.

@matt @kragen @icedquinn @cypnk that's true, and while they're getting better all the time i doubt that gap can shrink by much. i expect it to be like 3d-printing, it's not for everything but has its uses. solar is i think a good example of a place where a huge cost/performance tradeoff could be appealing, and is where much of the printing research is focused. camera sensors are another, where silicon area cost is a big issue and speed is a non-issue past a certain threshold

@matt @kragen @icedquinn @cypnk but partly i just think of the ability to support small fabs, and the differences in supply-chain (organic synthesis vs rare-metal sourcing)

@matt @kragen @icedquinn @cypnk it's not a replacement for silicon but i hope they can complement each other

@cascode @kragen @icedquinn @cypnk fabs aren't needed if you don't need a clean room, TBH. And it doesn't look like printed electronics need a cleanroom.

@cascode @matt @icedquinn @cypnk I think organic synthesis is a lot trickier than rare-metal sourcing, generally speaking. The problem with, say, GaAs supply chains, isn't (as I understand it) that you need to get gallium, which is only about as expensive as silver. It's that you need gallium with <1ppm impurities. And I think organic semiconductors are a lot more tolerant, but I don't know why that might be.

@cascode @matt @icedquinn @cypnk What's your threshold for "low-capital"? The US$100k I suggested to get a 22nm chip working is, yeah, 40dB more expensive than a latte. But it's also 60dB less expensive than Intel. And you can get started at under €2000, which is only 23dB more expensive than a latte. Or, seen another way, it's less than a week's worth of billable work to pay for the fabrication of over six months of unpaid hobby chip design work.


@kragen @matt @icedquinn @cypnk to phrase another way: the main "low-capital" aspect i'm pushing here is low upfront capital requirements to build and operate a facility capable of fabrication, not just a single IC

@cascode @kragen @icedquinn @cypnk That's the rub. In order to make it cost effective, you need to produce a couple hundred wafers per run (tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of chips).

@matt @cascode @icedquinn @cypnk Yeah, I think that one reason the MPW samples are so expensive per chip is that they only do 20 or 25 wafers, with one instance of your chip on each of them.


@matt @icedquinn @cypnk Any idea how many projects the MPW outfits share that US$1M per-mask cost between?

@kragen @icedquinn @cypnk MPW? I don't follow.

Usually a mask is designed for a individual devices. The mask is literally what imprints the photolithography pattern onto the hardmask on the wafer. You need a mask (or multiple masks) for each layer of the process. I would not be surprised if it takes a dozen masks just for the transistors themselves, followed by another dozen for the metal interconnect layers.

@matt @icedquinn @cypnk MPW is kind of an opposite extreme of the semiconductor industry from the stuff you're doing at Intel. It stands for "multi-project wafer"; MPW organizations like MOSIS, CMP, CMC, and EUROPRACTICE take chip design projects from many different designers (hundreds to thousands) and combine them onto a single wafer. That's how it's possible to get 25 samples of a new chip design in any process node for less than €2000, or less than US$100K in 28nm.

@kragen @icedquinn @cypnk I see, I didn't realize this was a thing.

You still need masks to do this though.

From a process perspective, this seems like a nightmare for parametrics.

@matt @icedquinn @cypnk You mean, a nightmare for characterizing the process parameters? I think that is in fact true and the reason for the failure of a number of fabless semiconductor startups in the 1990s and 2000s

@kragen @icedquinn @cypnk Exactly, but I was also thinking of in-line parametric checks, for checking things like CDs (critical dimensions), inline defects, film thickness, and the like.

@matt @icedquinn @cypnk I'm speaking well beyond the limits of my actual knowledge here, but I think most MPW customers are using standard cell libraries supplied by the fabs, so they might be able to do things like that anyway.

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