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Gate Oxide Breakdown Failures Highlight Industry Need for New Electrical Rule Checking Tools

Designers are discovering a new class of design errors that is difficult to check using more traditional methods, and can potentially affect a wide range of IC designs, especially where high reliability is a must. There errors require electrical rule checking to complement the tradition layout checks.

Electrical rules are relatively complex, non-standard, and growing in number and type, creating a need for a highly flexible, user-configurable tool. ERCs are important, but particularly challenging in designs with multiple voltage domains and mixed analog/digital circuits, such as low-power devices targeting mobile and other battery-powered applications.

Designs that incorporate multiple power domain checks are particularly susceptible to subtle design errors that are difficult to identify in the simulation space or with traditional PV techniques. Often these subtle errors don’t result in immediate part failure, but performance degradation over time. For example, Negative Bias Temperature Instability (NBTI) leads to the threshold voltage of PMOS transistors increasing over time, resulting in reduced switching speeds for logic gates. Another effect is Hot Carrier Injection (HCI), which alters the threshold voltage of NMOS devices over time. Soft breakdown (SBD) also contributes as a time-dependent failure mechanism, contributing to the degradation effects of gate oxide breakdown.

Some electrical rule checks are based on the netlist and include looking for floating devices, nets, or pins, detecting thin gates connected to excessive voltages, checking for violations of the maximum allowed number of series pass gates, and finding issues related to level shifter designs. Other checks are performed using geometric layout information, such as net area ratios for antenna rules, floating wells, and minimum “hot” NWELL width.

An important application of ERC is verifying that electrostatic discharge (ESD) protection circuits are in place wherever the device is vulnerable, whether those circuits are included in the schematic and netlist or not. To ensure a robust design, the ERC tool must go beyond simple schematic or netlist-to-layout verification and recognize where ESD protection elements are needed, based on combined information from the netlist and the layout topology.

In multiple power domains, other precautions have to be considered. For example, IP reuse may require more robust rules to avoid device burnout at the system integration stage. This is particularly the case where an IP block is being re-targeted to a different process node or power domain. The introduction of lower voltage power domains is also an area where IP reuse and the contribution to the overall reliability of the chip must be considered. Often, to attain lower voltage thresholds for lower power circuits, the oxide layer of a transistor is made thinner. While this has significant voltage and power benefits, there are potential problems when thin-oxide gates have paths to specific voltage rails. To avoid long term damage to the gate over a period of time, which results in performance degradation, the voltage rail must be carefully chosen. A previous implementation may have the gate tied at a voltage that is too high for the current use.

Successful integration of physical IP blocks requires knowledge of the design hierarchy as well as the structure of voltage domains and cell voltage constraints. Design hierarchy also comes into play when one set of rules is applied to upper layer interconnects and pad frames, while different rules are applied between blocks crossing multiple power domains.

As ERC becomes more critical to producing a reliable product, designers and engineers are constantly discovering new checks that they would like to make during verification. These checks are based on their accumulated knowledge and best practices of design groups; thus, there is no “standard” set of checks. Consequently, it is crucial that an ERC tool be easily programmable, allowing users to adapt it quickly to new checks as they become needed.

There is more information available on this topic as well as Calibre PERC, an ERC tool specifically developed to address advanced circuit verification issues, at and

Mentor will also be presenting on this topic at the free Tech Design Forum on March 10 in Santa Clara ( Look for the session “Successful Analog Mixed Signal Design at Advanced Nodes.”

Low Power, PERC, ERC, thin oxide, Verification

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About Matthew Hogan

Matthew HoganMatthew Hogan is a Calibre Marketing Engineer for Mentor Graphics. With over 15 years of design and field experience, he is well-versed in the issues that are imposed on today's aggressive designs. Matthew holds a B.Eng and an MBA. Visit Matthew Hogan's Blog

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