DoD Ramps Secure Chip Design Effort

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Microsoft and Qualcomm Technologies will lead the second phase of a Pentagon chip initiative designed to leverage U.S. microelectronics capabilities while securing its technology supply chain.

Both companies oversaw initial development beginning last year under the Defense Department’s Rapid Assured Microelectronics Prototypes (RAMP) initiative. IBM was a phase-one partner with Microsoft.

The $200 million chip initiative is designed to strengthen the U.S. microelectronics industrial base after years of relying on mostly Asian suppliers. RAMP emphasizes circuit design and secure manufacturing. IBM and Microsoft were awarded a $24.5 million phase-one contract last year to advance security for physical “back-end” IC design.

In awarding contracts for the second phase, officials at the National Security Technology Accelerator said the next milestone will be demonstrating chip designs at or below the 22-nm process node, including SoCs that can be designed and verified using advanced process technology.

The design emphasis focuses on post-RTL design steps such as place and route and design verification. Design goals include reduced power consumption, improved performance and reliability as well as smaller physical size.

RAMP does not directly address chip packaging or radiation-hardened circuit design, program officials noted.

Microsoft will head a team that includes Ansys, Applied Materials, BAE Systems, Battelle Memorial Institute, Cadence Design Systems, Cliosoft, Flex Logix, GlobalFoundries, Intel Federal, Raytheon Intelligence and Space, Siemens EDA, Synopsys, Tortuga Logic, and Zero ASIC.

In a blog post, Microsoft said it would host the resulting IC development platform on its Azure Government cloud. “By leveraging cloud-based secure design capabilities, RAMP will expand the number of foundries available to DoD, enhance resiliency and foster growth of the domestic semiconductor supply chain,” added Microsoft’s Tom Keane.

The secure cloud service includes AI and machine learning automation tools along with “quantifiable assurance,” a metric for ensuring the security of dual-use devices that could be used in either weapons or a commercial IoT platform, for example. Team member Flex Logic, which licenses its embedded FPGA technology to the Pentagon’s top research agency, said it is contributing its reconfigurable technology to the RAMP initiative to boost security and quantifiable assurance.

The IC design and manufacturing framework assumes that no device is secure, or “zero trust,” and that all microelectronics components must be validated before deployment.

RAMP is part of a concerted DoD effort to secure its technology supply chain and leverage domestic IC design capabilities while reducing dependence on off-shore chip fabrication and packaging along with testing and assembly.

Those efforts also underscore how the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the military services are moving beyond DoD’s trusted foundry model. One reason is that trusted facilities can’t support leading-edge process technology, thereby slowing DoD technology adoption.

Phase-two RAMP contractor Qualcomm previously teamed with Intel Technologies to address the lack of domestic access to process technology at 7 nanometers and below. Among other things, that earlier phase addressed physical design steps used by fabless chipmakers to ready IC designs for wafer fabrication.

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