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Designing a chip? Come to India!
Subir Roy | October 19, 2005
Big gates, small gates. Fort gates, logic gates. Open gates, fuzzy gates. While Chinese youth are busy reading Bill at the speed of thought, Indian youth are busy pooling diverse inputs to give India the "nanobuzz" of a generation.
The buzz is India's emerging as a design centre for the all-important microprocessor -- or chip, that little flat piece of silicon etched with microscopic circuitry that executes the commands of the computer user.
Or, if it's any clearer, the computer component that turned Andy Grove into a legend and Intel into a star.
Ascent of Nano-man
As part of India's story of information technology evolution, chip design is a critical link to the big bucks that pile up as revenues for Tech Inc. as the world seeks more and more digitisation and computer processing power.
The key word here, do note, is "design". While software services -- turnkey projects, mostly -- have earned India plenty of export dollars, they have not altered the computer world's competitive landscape in any silicon-shattering or significant way. And that is where some of the big money is: in the upper/riskier reaches of the technology value curve. Is India headed there?
Broadly, chips are part of the semiconductor industry, and chips can be of all kinds, from humble wafers that store basic data for tasks like switching a light bulb on to high-end powerhouses that enable the sort of rapid computations required to, say, simulate an earthquake for test-modelling.
That Indian businesses are doing design work at all is quite a change, according to Sridhar Mitta, managing director, e4e Labs. As former chief technology officer of Wipro and head of its global R&D for two decades, he has seen the shift in the very business models.
"Earlier, people used to talk in terms of number of bodies and square foot space. Now people talk of making this or that chip. Texas Instruments and Intel are now developing entire chips or family of chips here. So is Wipro, Open Silicon and MindTree, though they are not allowed to talk about it. When they talk to customers, they talk in terms of new products for new markets, conceiving products on a custom basis instead of doing bits and pieces."
The chip design ball was set rolling in India by Texas Instruments, ST Microelectronics and Analog Devices, which were joined later by Intel in "end-to-end" design work. So recalls S R Dinesh of Frost & Sullivan, a consultancy firm. The domestic industry now has two sets of players: product companies that design chips for themselves, and service companies such as Wipro, Sasken, HCL Technologies and MindTree that do it for others.
Overall, the number of players has shot up, says Satya Gupta, vice-president, engineering, Open Silicon, a small chip design firm with a 50-member design centre in Bangalore. "Now, almost all the global semiconductor players are doing something here. Plus, a lot of experienced guys have returned."
Throw in a fresh dose of venture capital, having overcome the post-tech bubble stupor, and you have enough bustle to accompany the buzz.
The Indian Semiconductor Association, which is less than a year old, already has 70 members. And bitten by the entrepreneurial bug this time round, adds Mitta, is a somewhat more ambitious IT professional.
"Earlier they were India-based, getting out of leading companies like Infosys or Wipro, and their business model was based on cost arbitrage," he says. "But increasingly, prospective entrepreneurs are people who have worked in the US with MNCs." Frost & Sullivan's Dinesh calculates that the industry, which clocked $650-700 million last year, should grow over the next few years at a compound annual rate of close to 30 per cent.
So far, so promising. But what are chip designers up to?
Intelligence in design
Among the businesses attracting attention are Open Silicon and Tessolve. This is because they fill critical gaps that existed in the chip design eco-system.
These gaps were identified by Naveed Sherwani, Open Silicon's CEO, and his crew of co-founders, including Gupta, while they were still working at Intel as a team of ASIC engineers (that's short for "application specific integrated circuit"). When the chipmaker decided to shut down that division, they roped in Sequoia Capital for funds and struck out on their own, setting up shop in 2002.
Unlike the typical end-to-end chip design service firms that develop chips to client-given specifications for high-volume manufacture, Open Silicon goes further by offering "silicon engineering services" that guide the way the chips are actually cranked out, tackling such issues as testing, assembly, failure analysis, product engineering, yield enhancement and packaging. "Now we have one design centre, next year we will have two," projects Gupta, "We will be doing more complex chips and break even by third year."
Tessolve, a California-based firm that has a Bangalore operation, also goes beyond the design stage by offering testing services. "Locating a world class testing centre close to the design groups is a compelling proposition," according to P Raja Manickam, Tessolve's founder CEO, former Texas Instruments man and IITian.
Design, no doubt, encompasses a lot more than that. What about "design" in its original sense -- chip conceptualisation? According to S N Padmanabhan, vice-president, engineering R&D services, MindTree, Indian chip designers are getting there.
Concepts are exercising minds. Even two years ago, he says, "People were doing small parts of overall work, well defined tasks, as an extension of someone's engineering facilities, not with responsibility for the whole device. There was also some development of standards based IP and reusable blocks, but not much scalability."
And now? "We are slowly saying, 'we will own the complete module, give us the specs and we will use our technology to do the final product'," says Padmanabhan. "We are now looking at customers who are not semiconductor companies that need chips for their products (such as set top boxes). This is causing product level companies to come to India."
By way of estimate, about a fifth of the work being done now in semiconductor design services involves taking complete "ownership" of the design of a device or product level idea.
The Indian units of multinational players have also grown in work sophistication, according to Harish M, business development manager for semiconductor marketing and sales at Texas Instruments. For once, they have begun to lead the design curve, and that's a good sign.
"Earlier, we were doing bits and pieces of work," he elaborates, "now we have insight into the strategy of the company as products which matter to the company are being worked upon in India. Texas Instruments has played an important role in the designing of the single chip phone."
The complexity of work undertaken in India has changed beyond recognition," adds Himangshu Singh, executive director India and SAARC, Cadence Design Systems, a supplier of electronic design automation tools, which support and speed up chip designing. He has seen his customers for tools to make VLSI chips ("very large scale integration") grow tenfold since 1999 to 150 now.
Some of this is having an effect on chip nomenclature too. Texas Instruments, for instance, once named an India-designed family of chips "Ankoor". Intel is currently rumoured to be working on project codenamed "Whitefield", after the Bangalore suburb where the action is taking place, to design an addition to its Zeon family of chips. Texas Instruments, meanwhile, is proud of "Sangam".
Amidst the myriad activities, if there's one big breakthrough waiting for its big moment, it remains unknown. But then, it could take quite some time before India's semiconductor industry delivers a chip to reshape the way the world computes.
In the interim, as skill sets get sharpened with experience, there are other lucrative designs to be made. Design work is always conducted under strict secrecy, and even technically up-to-date observers cannot always spot winners. All the more so when the numbers are vast.
Wipro, to cite just one example, runs what its president of product engineering services Ramesh Emani describes as the world's largest chip design services group -- almost one thousand strong.
And this business is growing faster than Wipro's overall engineering services business, though it accounts only for 10 per cent of engineering services revenue at the moment. Over the last two years, Wipro has executed 30 designs of the "system on chip" type.
It has also designed a chip for a gaming company, and done digital TV work for some Japanese firms, apart from extending its services to include die-stage chip testing and package design. Its latest success has been in devising networking chips that help computers link-up with each other.
And it's all happening in extreme miniature close-up, as chip designing goes down to double-digit nanometer specifications, with measurements taken in the accuracy of a billionth of a meter, as tiny electronic circuits are etched onto a wafer of silicon.The median rate in the world's semiconductor industry right now is 130 nanometer (which means half the work is bigger than that, and half of it is smaller). But design work in India has reached 90 or even 65 nanometer. Now this is really tiny. Invisible to most, but invaluable nonetheless.