The Key Motivator for Semiconductors

Dr. Debajyoti Pal, Sr. Vice President & CTO, Ikanos Communications Inc.

Cost of ASIC: The Biggest Challenge

The industry is going from 65 nanometer to 28 nanometer chips. Continuing this transformation is one of the biggest challenges for the semiconductor industry. The size of the chips is inversely proportional to the cost, thus making it more difficult for small players especially the startups to survive. Often referred to as “Cost of ASIC” problem that explains how expensive it has become to develop custom complex ASICs today using deep sub micron technology, the industry has yet to come up with a solution for this.

The chips have surely shrunk in their geometry, but there are not enough applications available to drive this adoption or need making it another major concern for the industry leaving it to worry for ROI. Mobile, Tablets and other hand-held devices are gaining momentum within the consumer circle demanding higher speed and more integration. As far as these challenges are concerned, I do not believe that the only way for the companies is to find ways to innovate to provide the same functionality. It may not be necessarily going for a lower node but to stay at a stable node that has some maturity and lower cost; as every node comes down in cost over time over the years. It means that they do not have to be in the latest node if they do not need to, but can innovate in the architecture and how they provide those functionalities or adding more software content in their chips.

Twinge Points

The finish process of ICs has always been a pain point for the semiconductor industry. While the industry has come a long way, the design process is still not very automated!

In the digital side, while CAD tools have improved tremendously over the last 30 years, the design complexity has also increased exponentially. For that matter, today’s complex SOCs are four or five orders of magnitude more complex than what the most    complex microprocessors of the early eighties. We need to figure out how to reduce the time and the number of man hours for design, verification, backend (Physical Design), DFT and more before taping out a chip.

In the analog side, the intricacy continues as (a) a deep understanding of circuit design and (b) to a large extent, semiconductor device physics as it relates to electrical properties of transistors, and other circuit elements built using submicron processes is required. Moreover analog has also been transitioning to what is known as so called “mixed signal”, the interaction between digital and analog as integral parts of the same circuit (partly analog and partly digital) the complexity of design is rising. Mixed signal design and analog design still remains very much of an art today as it was 30 years ago. The level of automation for designing analog or mixed signal chips is far behind the level of automation for designing digital ICs.

Other tribulations associated with semiconductor industry are in terms of handling the heat in the chips and packaging. While the package technology has improved substantially over time, but the cost remains a sore point for the industry. For small devices often the package cost can exceed the actual die cost!

Trends and Economic Drivers

The adoption of high speed broadband, personal devices that has connectivity and applications running on those devices are the major economic drivers in the current economic downturn. More recently, the proliferation of smartphones that have lot of capabilities for running applications including videos has been one of the driving factors for semiconductor industry. Tablets are driving the industry more than the PCs and this has increased the amount of incoming content into the home resulting in adoption of higher speed broadband.

‘Tablets’ is just one example; we might have smart televisions, a personal cloud to store our personal data and would be able to share that among the different screens that we use. Moreover video streaming and IPTV are becoming popular. Also, over the top (OTT) programming is gaining momentum. At home, concurrent watching video or TV content on multiple screens is becoming more and more common. Also high speed broadband could enable a service provider such as AT&T, France Telecom or, Bharti Airtel to offer cloud based services to their consumers at home.

All in all, the industry will see an intense need for processing and distributed processing and connectivity for digital home. We as a semiconductor company need to focus on how to participate in this ultra high speed broadband to home as well as what we call as connected digital home of the future.

Roadmap Ahead

Ikanos has pioneered “Node Scale Vectoring” (NSV) technology that completely eliminates cross-talk across the whole node with a node size up to 384 ports. Cross-talk is the main impediment for achieving ultra high speed over existing phone lines. Ikanos products (based on NSV technology) can enable telecom operators around the world to provide high speed broadband services with sustained data rates in excess of 100Mbps (up to 150Mbps on shorter loops) on a single twisted pair copper to virtually any home!

Ikanos is currently engaged in developing technology for noise cancellation for noises that are in the home. Vectoring cancels primarily cross talk and gets performance as if there were no crosstalk. In the wake of vectoring, cancelation of non cross-talk noises at home become important not only for user experience but also for line stability.

Today Ikanos has a project that is running between three sides for our next generation CPE products, which has a lot of new innovation going into it.

Emerging Engineers

Kids have become more entrepreneurial because of the availability of network and resources. When I was in school, no one had heard about starting your own company. Now more and more kids are doing it. They are joining startup right after their college and starting out their own companies. My advice to such enthusiasts would be to follow your passion and try to pursue your dream. You may fail but do not be afraid to fail.