A start-up led by former Intel Corp. executives and funded in part by the chip giant is giving processors an analog spin to address the increasing complexity of system-level requirements.
Calling itself Primarion Inc., the new company this week will unveil its Active Signal Integrity Architecture (ASIA), an analog solution for power management, system clocking, and bus interfaces that is customized for integration with specific processors.
"With every new processor, it's getting harder and harder to solve the analog problem, and we feel it's time for a new business model and technology," said Mike Eisele, vice president of marketing at Primarion, Tempe, Ariz. "The pressure on the analog part of the system is only going to get more intense," he said. "Our conclusion is that the only way to get good analog to match your processor is customized solutions. Standard products are not going to cut it anymore."
Primarion was founded last year with investments from Intel, ON Semiconductor Inc., and venture capital from APV Technology Partners and Koch Ventures Inc. The company is led by chairman and chief technology officer Bill Pohlman, who worked at Intel for 19 years and developed the 8086/8088 and 80286/287 microprocessors; president Daniel Clarke, a former Intel manager and chief operating officer of Vivid Semiconductor; vice president of process engineering Narayan Kulkarni, a former vice president of California Micro Devices Inc.; and Eisele, who worked for 19 years as general manager of Intel's video-processor and automotive businesses.
"Our competency and our capability, from both a technical and business point of view, is really in the understanding of processors of all kinds," Eisele said. "We've seen the emerging data-integrity crisis in analog, but we hadn't seen a strong, focused approach to solving the problem."
Analyst Will Strauss of Tempe-based Forward Concepts Co. said it makes sense for Intel to become involved in an analog company because "analog requires a different mind-set and different talents" than those the company has cultivated recently.
"Many years ago, Intel got out of the analog business altogether, and their subsequent success, first in memories and then with microprocessors, has kept them from looking back," Strauss said. "Now that they're also getting back into DSP, I think they realize that there really is no such thing as a DSP that doesn't interface with analog, and they want to help fund a start-up like this."
Eisele likened the customized analog of Primarion's ASIA technology to cache memory for maximizing the performance of microprocessors in computer systems.
Multiple-purpose catalog analog devices were sufficient for half-micron, 5-V-based digital devices. But as the devices moved to 0.35-micron processes with 3.3-V core-operating voltages, application-specific analog devices became increasingly prevalent. As the digital world moves to 0.15-micron and smaller processes operating at 1 V and lower, customized analog will prove useful in gaining maximum performance, he said.
Problems like noise immunity, clock skew, bus speed, soft errors, and transient response can best be addressed by tailoring analog functions directly to the processor, Eisele said.
Primarion plans to reveal its concept by the third quarter, with its first products expected in the second half of 2001. The company has 10 patents pending involving the delivery and distribution of power to a processor, precision clocking at gigahertz speeds, and bus interfaces.
Initially, Primarion will address the needs of multiprocessors and servers, but "we believe the need for better signal integrity will reach the whole processor market within five to seven years," Eisele said. "We believe that instead of being a performance-enhancement technology, ASIA will become essential to system design in every deep-submicron processor-based system."
Primarion said it is buying a fab in the Phoenix area to enhance in-house R&D. The company also plans to use the fab to provide foundry services.