When Do Standards Matter Most To Your Business?

There’s an old adage that goes like this: “50 percent of all marketing dollars is a waste of money… we just don’t know which 50 percent!” So too it goes with standards investments. There are so many variations of “standards” used in the field of engineering that the term can become diluted – almost meaningless. While we all recognize that certain specific, effective standards are an essential part of our business, it is hard to know which ones are worthy of our valuable attention to drive and influence, or even simply choose to adopt.

Figure 1

Business motivations for any given standard will vary based upon whether your company is a supplier, consumer, or “partner” in the supply chain. The business goal might be to enable / grow a market, increase share of a market, reduce internal costs, enable faster time-to-market, or steer an industry in a technology direction favorable to your products. Standards may be brand new or existing, fully-open specifications created by committee or existing “de facto standard” formats controlled by a single supplier, and may or may not rely upon accompanying software, training, and libraries to facilitate adoption (Figure 1). No wonder the standards landscape appears to be so confusing!

The key to understanding when a standard becomes an important link to your business is to recognize scenarios where the exchange of data is (a) impeding efficient operations, or (b) impedes a desired business strategy. In the case of impeding operations, this usually takes the form of wasted manual effort that is affecting cost and/or schedule, or is limiting technical features of the product. For example, a lack of robustness to describe or exchange lowpower intent across your tool flow may translate to a less optimized chip, or may restrict performance or capacity for verifying what has been designed.

In the second scenario, a desired business strategy may be to provide flexibility in choice of suppliers to adapt to changing market conditions or new “best in class” tools. Or, it may simply be to ensure competitive pricing leverage with existing supplier(s).

If one of the scenarios above applies, then the next question is to assess the important attributes of the standard that support those objectives. Specific features will vary based upon circumstances, however as a rule of thumb the more complex the standard, the more time and effort will be required to adopt it, and the more important it will be to have associated adoption aids (such as training, reference software, and examples). Less complicated efforts may not require any adoption collateral and can be far simpler to support. Standards with a very broad impact spanning across the design flow will tend to require the coordinated involvement across a wider array of domain experts, but if successful will yield a proportionally larger return on investment (ROI) when adopted. It may be interesting to note that when it comes to standards, the ROI business value actually increases as adoption grows, so a good investment in a standard now becomes an even better one as more of industry converges around it over time.

Most engineers will be focused on their chip development or support role, and so the process behind developing a standard may not seem too important at first. However, those with experience will tell you that these details can matter a great deal and can directly affect the company’s ROI. Here are some key long-term success factors to consider when planning to develop (and maintain) an effective industry standard that will earn the trust and support of an entire industry:

  • Strictly non-discriminatory processes are followed for all levels of membership, participation, and decision-making; this means any company can join at any level under equal terms
  • Participation should span all relevant segments of the supply chain, with broad and balanced market leader representation to maximize buy-in and adoption
  • Rights, control, and ownership of all technology to be standardized should be equally shared across all interested stakeholders and under equal terms
  • IP policies should protect legal portfolios of the member companies while collaborating, as well as protect non-discriminatory, royalty-free adoption of the resulting standard

Sometimes it is sufficient to just wait for the standard to emerge, then take advantage of the result “for free” at a later date. This is a reasonable business choice when your own company has no particular interest in the contents, schedule, roadmap / direction, or earlymover advantages gained by your competitors who are engaged. However, in many other cases not engaging earlier may deny a company the opportunity to affect the standard to its needs or it may miss the larger, more strategic picture which can actually cost the company more than if it had chosen to engage from the outset. If the decision were really as simple as saving resources by letting industry peers do the work, then why would so many leading companies repeatedly engage and drive standards efforts? What have they learned over time that some others have not?

While there is no short answer to this strategic question, I will propose a few considerations that will influence the decision. First, participating in new standards development often requires a certain amount of “vision” about what the solution ought to look like and how it will work in practice. So, if your company has internal methodologies or uses specific data that offers in-house advantages, it would be important to protect those advantages by ensuring the standard does not conflict with or minimize them while still providing all the interoperability benefits you expect.

Second, there is clearly a risk involved, since some standards fail to get widely adopted even after much invested effort. The key is to plan with the end in mind, to account for various risk factors up front. Si2 takes the holistic flow-centric approach to “solve the problem” – which starts with thoroughly understanding it first from the users’ points of view. Risk is lowered by assembling representatives from stakeholders who would most benefit from the end result. Engineering resources are applied to architect the required solution by coordinating among members and other market leaders so that it meets needs on both the technology and business front. Si2 frequently develops supporting adoption collateral as well as the specifications to improve odds of successful adoption. Finally, we provide active program management resources, including adoption success metrics, and manage the program as though business is depending upon the result (which it is). All of these techniques help improve the odds of adoption success and lower overall risk.

Yet another factor to consider is whether the other companies developing the standard have the expertise, and share the priority, to address any special “niche” interests related your company’s business focus. If not, and if the standard will be business-relevant, then it is very important to engage early and ensure those needs are adequately prioritized and addressed so that you do not suffer a comparative disadvantage.

For many years, designers and EDA / CAD support staff came from companies with in-house fabs and sizable internal tool development. Thus, recognizing the value of working together for a common standard solution was natural, because the alternative was to invest even more effort and yet get less interoperability. However, times have changed, and it can be enticing to remain so laser-focused on the next tape-out that this value may get lost for lack of attention. These days, we are starting to see a number of fabless companies recognize the inherent value of selective, focused investment in design flow standards that affect their future. Similarly, foundries are also recognizing this value as their business needs expand upstream and require more internal efficiency, flexibility, and interoperability.

Figure 2

So, it is my hope that readers will take this opportunity to review the strategic value trade-offs involved, and make a conscious decision about participating in selected standards that may have a large impact on their business and future competitiveness (Figure 2). It is only through a balance of give-and-take in standards investment that our industry can continue to grow in capability and efficiency, and where the right standards at the right time can help us achieve critical mass in emerging “More Than Moore” technology areas (e.g., 3D die stacking). This essence is also well captured in Si2’s tag line, “Innovation Through Collaboration”. The members of Si2 believe in this model, and the business value of these investments, to help our industry move forward.

Since 2002, Steve has served as President and CEO of Si2, the leading worldwide consortium of semiconductor and software companies developing EDA standards and supporting technology. Under Steve’s leadership, membership has increased 400%, and output of collaborative technology has expanded in both frequency and scope to better serve a rapidly changing industry.

Contact Information

Silicon Integration Initiative, Inc.

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