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Unraveling Huawei’s Semiconductor Success in Designing Kirin 9000S chip Without the US EDA Tools


Huawei’s recent success in developing its Kirin 9000S chip using 7nm technology from SMIC, China’s leading wafer foundry, has sent shockwaves through the global tech community. What’s particularly intriguing is how Huawei accomplished this without access to American EDA tools?

Raising question: How did China Design the Kirin 9000S Chip in EDA Tool Restrictions Context?

Electronic Design Automation, or EDA, is a collection of software, hardware, and services with the collective goal of assisting in the definition, planning, design, implementation, verification, and subsequent manufacturing of semiconductor devices, or chips. With the development of semiconductor applications in many aspects nowadays (AI, Autonomous Car, IoT, etc.), EDA has produced productivity in ensuring billions of transistors, multiple chips and technology work flawlessly, meeting demanding performance goals. EDA tools assist the design and manufacturing engineers in predict and optimize performance, as well as reduce design time as they deliver architecture analysys, stimulation, verification, physical design, manufacturing, semiconductor IP, etc. Regarding the manufacturing of these EDA tools, the primary providers of this service are semiconductor foundries, or fabs.

EDA tool

Huawei faced a critical challenge as EDA tools, such vital role in developing a chip, are under the US’s export restriction to China. Yet, Huawei still managed to design the Kirin 9000S chip without these essential EDA tools? The webinar, hosted by Nikkei Asia, featuring Chris Miller, author of the bestselling Chip War, uncovered intriguing stories about Huawei’s quest for semiconductor self-reliance, from EDA to packaging.

In the webinar, Dan Hutcheson, vice chair of TechInsights raise a question “Where did the EDA tools come from?”, how Huawei managed to design the Kirin 9000S chip in such a short time, with dominant EDA players like Synopsys, Cadence, and Siemens Mentor are based in the US (consisting of about 75% market shares in 2021). Despite export restrictions, Huawei seemingly made remarkable progress due to these below two reasons.

Inefective Export Restrictions: The GAAFET Architecture Factor

While EDA IPs are not under the list of export restriction, the software required for ICs designing with GAAFET architecture, suitable in processes below 3nm, faces an embargo. Huawei’s Kirin 9000S, produced using SMIC’s N+2 7nm technology, aligns with FinFET architecture, making the necessary EDA tools already accessible in China.

EDA tool

Eric Chen, semiconductor analyst of DIGITIMES Research commented that Huawei had the capability to design 7nm chips even before being placed on the Entity List. They just have to take the old design of the previous generation chip, make some upgrades and adjustments to have the new chip design, the Kirin 9000S, ready for foundry manufacturing.

The Piracy Debate: Using EDA Software Amid Restrictions

Despite suppliers are restricted from making any transaction with Chinese enterprises, industry experts pointed out the possibility of Huawei and HiSilicon using pirated EDA software to overcome challenges. An ex-HiSilicon employee revealed that ten-year licenses were procured in abundance before the embargo in 2019, supporting the design of the Kirin 9000S chip, the EDA tools for the 7nm chip.

The Rise of China’s EDA Industry

Empyrean Technology, China’s largest domestic EDA tool company, reported substantial growth, reflecting the overall success of China’s EDA industry. Specifically, their revenue experienced 51.9% growth for the first half of 2023 (compared to the same period last year).

Apart from Empyrean, Huawei also commited to testing EDA tools /software for more advanced chips (above 14nm) further emphasizes the blossoming collaboration between domestic EDA companies, informed by Huawei’s rotating chairman Xu Zhijun in earlier 2023.

EDA tool

Source: ChipInsights Institute, compiled by DIGITIMES, Oct 2023

Beyond Empyrean, other companies like Primarius and startups such as Shanghai Ledatech, Shenzhen SMiT’s S2C, XEPIC, Shanghai Univista, and Cellixsoft are contributing to the vibrant EDA landscape in China. The optimism is fueled by local governments subsidizing IC design companies to use homegrown EDA tools.

A Chinese EDA company executive also shared his optimistic view about the outlook of China’s local EDA industry because due to the growing EDA market demands unleashing opportunities for domestic substitution.

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