Six months after being pushed out of the nest, ON Semiconductor Inc.-the former commodity-IC unit of Motorola Inc.'s Semiconductor Products Sector-is taking its logic business to new heights.
Phoenix-based ON, now under the wing of the Texas Pacific Group, said it intends to propel logic ICs into higher-value arenas, supporting communications backbones, where data moves at speeds upward of 40 Gbits/s.
ON is considering a variety of alternatives to advance its logic business, including internal investment, acquisitions, and alliances with other suppliers, said Morris Daniely, director of high-bandwidth ICs at ON.
Though details are few at this point, pivotal to ON's strategy is an emitter-coupled logic technology, which most logic suppliers abandoned decades ago. Consequently, ON now controls about 70% of the small, lucrative ECL market.
"We will initially build on the technology base we have, leveraging our leadership position in ECL," Daniely said. "We're also looking at investing in other technologies down the road."
ECL is a bipolar logic architecture that fell out of favor with designers in the late 1980s, when advanced CMOS techniques produced higher performance at a lower cost. But as CMOS approaches its limitations, ECL is making a come-back in ultra-high-frequency communications systems, ON claims.
Because of its electrical characteristics, current ECL technology allows data to move at speeds up to 10 Gbits/s, with minimal signal degradation as frequency increases. It's still slower than gallium arsenide and more expensive than CMOS logic, but ECL offers the best price/performance trade-off for the applications ON will target, the company said.
Today, ECL is a $150 million sliver of the overall $2 billion logic-device market, according to analyst Will Booth of Insight Onsite, San Jose. Within the high-speed portion of the logic market, ECL is poised to grow on the order of 10% to 12% compounded annually in the next five years as demand for Internet access drives growth in infrastructure and access equipment, he said.
ON's competitors contend that incompatibility issues will keep ECL a niche technology.
"It takes a significant investment to design in ECL vs. traditional switching standards, because you have to take into account all the other components in the system, which have to be compatible on both the input and the output," said Dave Hoover, worldwide product-marketing manager at Texas Instruments Inc.'s standard linear and logic unit, Sherman, Texas. "Designers have to make the decision upfront whether to use ECL-which is mainly supported by [ON]-or to go with traditional TTL-based logic that's available from many other suppliers."
TI stopped investing in ECL 10 years ago in favor of CMOS-based high-speed, low-voltage approaches. It's latest effort brings Gunning Transceiver Logic-Plus (GTLP) to the 3.3-V level (see story on page 30), and 2.5-V development is under way, Hoover said.
ON said that as it moves to higher speeds, it will continue to concentrate on general-purpose logic functions such as clock distribution, bus drivers, and other parts associated with moving and translating data between various voltage levels and processing interfaces.
The company is also moving aggressively toward higher levels of integration-though not to the level of system-on-a-chip.
"When it comes to moving data off a board, or between chips at very high speeds with fast edges, that's not something you want to put on the core itself because it causes [signal] noise and raises power consumption of parts that are already high power," Daniely said.
According to one analyst, competition mandates that ON investigate emerging technologies such as silicon germanium (SiGe), which would allow it to integrate logic functions on its analog ICs without performance degradation.
"ECL can't be done in SiGe, but the basic logic functions can," said Charles Mantel of Selantek Inc., Mountain View, Calif. "If they want to stay competitive, they will have to [move to SiGe]."
ON's high-bandwidth development activity is set to begin shortly, with specific product plans, technology directions, and investment details to be unveiled in the coming months.