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Big Players in Chip Design Buy Into India

And chip making will soon follow

6 min read

It's a heady time for India's information technology industry. Up until just recently, its game had been to do the grunt work for multinationals that did most of the innovation and made the really big money elsewhere. But in a span of scarcely eight weeks last fall, IBM, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), Intel, Broadcom, and Cisco all announced major investments in chip design in India, amounting to billions of U.S. dollars and implying sharp increases in the number of company employees working in that country [see box, " "]. Largely because of these commitments, within a few years India will have its first semiconductor factory up and running, and the chips being made there will likely have been conceived and engineered in India itself.

These developments testify in part to the enormous growth in demand for the custom chips that corporate leaders expect India's burgeoning information technology and consumer electronics industries to require. Just as much, however, they are a tribute to the skills and talents of the software and design engineers being turned out in immense numbers by India's polytechnics and universities.

The demand for engineers to design very-large-scale integrated circuits will double in the next Four years

India's position suddenly seems so strong in both market potential and engineering resources that it could soon be driving some of the major global developments in chip design. If that seems far-fetched, consider Cisco Systems' recent announcements about design work it plans to undertake in India. Although Cisco, based in San Jose, Calif., has produced application-specific chips for use in its own products for about a decade, the company is not widely known as a semiconductor player. But when Cisco CEO John Chambers turned up in New Delhi last October and met with the country's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, he announced the company would put US $750 million into its own operations in India during the next few years, much of it to beef up its fledgling chip design laboratory in Bangalore.

Cisco's team in Bangalore claims it already represents the world's largest ongoing developer of custom-designed application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs). "We started with ASIC verification in 1999, but today we are designing platforms, which will go in the Cisco products to be rolled out in two years," Johnny Bastian, a senior manager of engineering at Cisco India, told IEEE Spectrum. "We began with 3 million gates [on a chip] and have now gone up to 45 million gates."

Chambers said during his visit to Delhi that the company had recognized an "inflection point in the Indian market" several years ago and made strategic investments that are paying off today. As a result, the company is now committing more than a billion dollars to India in new investments, including--besides the money it is spending on its own activities and sundry other programs--$100 million for a venture capital fund to spot and support start-ups. As the company gets more seriously involved in consumer electronics, with acquisitions of set-top-box maker Scientific-Atlanta Inc. and Denmark's networked-entertainment company KiSS Technology A/s, Cisco's managers evidently have decided that it will pay to let Indian entrepreneurs take the lead in some areas.

A similar logic appears to have taken hold at Microsoft Corp., which--with the Xbox, its Internet television technology, and its concepts for home media centers--is also emerging as a big player in consumer electronics. When company chairman and chief architect Bill Gates paid his visit to New Delhi in December, he announced investments of $1.7 billion, with $250 million dedicated to a venture capital fund [see photos, " "]. If Cisco is moving into chip design to provide the horsepower for emerging applications, could Microsoft soon follow?

India's miraculous autumn began inauspiciously when Intel quietly shelved its "Whitefield" project, which was to have developed a multicore processor for servers, with all the work to be done by Intel India. No reasons were given for the decision, which was announced amid news of personnel irregularities at Intel's Bangalore lab, although the company said it would develop an alternative processing chip called Tigerton, in Israel.

In November, however, came the news that IBM had picked HCL Technologies, in Noida (near Delhi), to be the only outside contractor doing design work on IBM's Power Architecture chip family [again, see box]. HCL will now be able to sublicense PowerPC cores while continuing to provide its customers with system-on-chip integration and other chip and board development services. "We can now promote use of the IBM PowerPC core in various system-on-chip designs across consumer electronics," says M.N. Divakar, corporate vice president and head of semiconductor practice at HCL. The company is eyeing applications in high-definition television systems, set-top boxes, networking, telecom, medical imaging, and the automotive sector.

The list of leading companies doing important chip design work in India does not end with Intel, IBM, and the others that announced new investments last fall. Dallas-based Texas Instruments Inc. (TI) was among the first to start semiconductor design work in India, along with ST Microelectronics, based in Geneva, and AMD, headquartered in Sunnyvale, Calif. It has been designing mission-critical chips on the subcontinent for some years. A notable example was the single-chip phone that TI unveiled last August in Delhi, which it codeveloped with Freescale Semiconductor India Pvt. Ltd., in Noida. Freescale/India came up with the phone's MXC (Mobile Extreme Convergence) architecture. It also contributed to development of the Neptune platform used in Motorola's Razr and Rokr cellphones.

"India has enormous appeal for different parts of the semiconductor value chain, from board, chip, and systems design to finished electronic products. It is emerging as a major design center for integrated circuits, field-programmable gate arrays, and systems on chips," says Ganesh Guruswamy, director and country manager of Freescale's operations in Noida. "I believe India is on a par with the kind of work that is being done by its U.S. counterparts," he adds.

Both TI and Philips Semiconductors have Indian engineers at their Bangalore labs working on chips with feature sizes of 90 and 65 nanometers, for wireless, broadband, and multimedia. "The multimedia mobile processor that we are working on here is the most state-of-the-art and complex chip that we [at Philips India] have ever worked upon in the semiconductor domain," boasts Rajeev Mehtani, the director of the Philips laboratory.

India's strengths in software engineering are a particularly important element in its push into chip design. Of course, computerized design techniques have been important to chip design almost from the time Moore proclaimed his law. Lately, however, software is all but embedded into chip architecture, and chip designers increasingly seek to share basic features of architecture early in the design process with the software engineers who write the programs that run on the chips.

To use an analogy from house construction, interior designers do not want to know where every single nail or screw is put, but if they can be told well in advance where the posts and lintels will be, then they have a head start on thinking about how the house can be lived in.

Partly to exploit such synergies, some Indian design firms are taking novel approaches. Open Silicon, a firm based in Sunnyvale and Bangalore, which was started by ex-Intel engineers Satya Gupta and Naveed Shervani in 2003, offers engineering services to guide the way chips are cranked out. The customer can decide what intellectual property is used, pick a foundry and packaging, try out vendors, and check design status at any time.

Bangalore-based Ittiam Systems Pvt. Ltd., which started as a maker of digital signal processors in Bangalore, decided four years ago to get into licensing intellectual property for chips. It now designs applications that run on digital signal processors, such as streaming video, digital still photography, and so on.

Admittedly, with the takeoff of Indian chip design, even allowing for the country's engineering resources, some shortages are bound to appear. Areas that could be adversely affected include system-on-chip, Internet Protocol and open-source applications, and embedded Linux. The problem is that long-term training programs do not yet exist for such fields, and short-term programs do not churn out engineers with all the abilities required in system integration, according to T.R. Madanmohan, a professor at Bangalore's Indian Institute of Management.

Very-large-scale integration (VLSI) is another potential bottleneck. "The demand for VLSI design engineers is set to double in the next four years, and we need to have the pipeline ready," says Poornima Shenoy, president of the newly formed Indian Semiconductor Association, in Bangalore, which has already launched a talent hunt that will cover 40 top engineering colleges and reach out to more than 10 000 job candidates.

Still, midway through India's amazing fall season in early November, the market research firm iSuppli Corp., in El Segundo, Calif., made a widely quoted prediction that India's semiconductor design industry would triple in size, from $624 million in 2005 to $1.7 billion by 2010. In light of developments that continue to unfold, that may turn out to have been a drastic underestimate.

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