Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Peering Into Reverse Engineering

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Have you ever thought of buying an Ipad or Iphone and tear it down into pieces to peer inside its integrated circuits and processor. No! I know you are not that Einstein. But researchers form chipwork make it their business to find it out. They buy mobile phones, laptops and reverse engineer the hardware, ICs and derive the complete schematic diagram.

Actually the reverse engg. process has long been recognized in semiconductor industry. For example to get a piece of silicon from plastic package, is dipped into a beaker of acid. For ceramic and metal can packages different complicated process are followed. 

So what new reverse engineers found after tearing down Ipad was 16Gbyte memory powered by two Samsung K9LCG08U1M 8Gbyte flash Nand memories; and instead of  Texas Instrument's touch controller do all the touch screen controls as in Iphone 3G they used three- chips as their earlier version of Iphone 2G.

Image: Inside Apple Ipad a)Metal Layers b)Transistor details c)Circuit Layout.

But the most difficult portion is to peer into smaller and delicate designs. With the use of powerful electron microscopes like SEMs (scanning electron microscope) and TEMs (transmission electron microscope) magnification till atomic level is feasible. With the analysis of cross-section and planar section of the layers, images are merged in a software like ICwork and a schematic is obtained.

Image: Schematic obtained of Bootstrap Oscillator circuit from SmartMOS DC/DC converter

But a question still arises whether reverse engg. is legal. In US according to Semiconductor Chip protection act the technique is allowed for the purpose of teaching, analyzing and evaluating the concept. Similar law exists in European Union, Japan and other jurisdiction. But with the growing competitive intelligence people involved in patenting are evolving with new techniques and designs which are hard to debug and reverse engineer.

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