SAN JOSE, Calif. Intensifying cost pressures have spurred manufacturers of hard-disk drives to step up the push for more highly integrated electronics, turning up the heat in the race toward system-on-chip ICs. Yet the various drive manufacturers and their component suppliers are taking surprisingly different routes toward the single-chip system.
A Massachusetts-based team of IC designers working for Quantum Corp. (Milpitas, Calif.) is designing a triple-threat solution three cores that would bring together a V-850 microcontroller from NEC Corp., a DSP from Texas Instruments Inc. and a read channel from Lucent Microelectronics. By keeping much of the design in-house and having at least two manufacturing sources, Quantum aims to maintain leverage during price negotiations.
Seagate Technology, meanwhile, has worked with Infineon Technologies AG (the former Siemens Microelectronics) to combine a 4-Mbit block of embedded DRAM and a Siemens microcontroller. Infineon is scrambling to add the read channel, a difficult mixed-signal integration challenge that it may not achieve until 2001.
The storage-IC division at Cirrus Logic (Fremont, Calif.) is hustling to bring out the 0.25-micron version of its "3CI" device. Introduced earlier this year on a 0.35-micron process, the 3CI was the first solution to combine a read-channel core with the digital control logic for servo and interface control. Cirrus claims a Japanese drive manufacturer will use the 3CI silicon starting in the second half of this year, once its firmware is converted to the ARM7 processor on the device.
Texas Instruments Inc., for its part, has been touting the SuperChip, another highly integrated device that reached first silicon recently. Expected to ship later this year, SuperChip also will combine most of a drive's control and read-channel functions. TI wants to own more of the silicon it ships to Quantum, and plans to replace the Lucent read channel that is now used with an integrated read channel of its own, and to license the NEC V-850 core Quantum favors.
Because of the power requirements of the preamp circuitry, most industry players said they expect that function to remain a separate device. But the rest of the drive circuitry is heading from today's count of three to five chips to one, or perhaps two chips for drive companies that shy away from embedded DRAM. Although today's low DRAM prices have stalled the integration of memory, Infineon said that it is becoming cheaper to put the DRAM on-chip than to rely on tightening supplies of trailing-edge 4- and 16-Mbit DRAMs.
Cost pressure mounts
Peter Hilland, a marketing vice president at Cirrus, said a typical desktop drive costs about $110 today. Historically the price of the drive has stayed about the same from one generation to the next while capacity has increased, roughly doubling every 18 months. That may be changing, Hilland said, noting a trend toward keeping the capacity of the drive the same while emphasizing lower prices. Seagate's U4 drive "knocked the socks off the industry" by delivering 4.3 Gbytes at a $90 price tag, he said.
Single-chip hard-drive solutions will be called upon to serve consumer markets as well. A set-top box is expected to someday include a 35-Gbyte-class hard-disk drive for video storage, but at a price of less than $35.
Not surprisingly, cost is king in this industry, which shipped about 165 million drives in 1999. Mike Rampelberg, a director at Infineon, said the pc-board assembly that plugs into the head disk assembly was priced at about $38 in 1997 and now sells for $25. The price is expected to drop to $10 by 2003, largely by shrinking the number of chips on the board to one digital IC with on-board DRAM. Another device will serve for the motor drive and preamp.
"It will get to two chips, perhaps mounted on a flex cable," Rampelberg predicted.
The result is that even with increasing volumes, the faster decline in average selling prices for storage ICs has made it difficult for many storage-IC vendors to maintain overall revenue.
Cirrus sells its 3CI chip an extremely sophisticated mixed-signal design for less than $10, a price which will move to about $6 as process shrinks kick in next year. Infineon is completing a chip with 16 Mbits of integrated DRAM and a more powerful controller for less than $10 as well.
And to keep up with Cirrus, and with TI's promised SuperChip, Infineon said it plans to sell a companion read-channel IC for only $2. Until Infineon can get its own read channel on the same die with the DRAM and controller, it will sell the two separate chips for the same price that Cirrus, TI and others sell their integrated solutions with an on-board read channel.
Xavier Pucel, a storage-IC analyst at IDC Corp. (Framingham, Mass.), said the movement toward a single chip is putting the squeeze on companies that have used BiCMOS for the read channel, such as Texas Instruments. Companies like Marvell Corp. (Sunnyvale, Calif.), which have succeeded by specializing in the mixed-signal CMOS technology used in the read channel, probably will need to either merge or form an alliance with a company that can deliver the control portion of the solution, Pucel said.
"Marvell is very big in the high end of the drive business, but they are not pushing integration," he said. "They will need to do an alliance with someone."
Another read-channel specialist, DataPath Systems Corp. (Los Gatos, Calif.), has relied on a BiCMOS process from NEC Corp. While BiCMOS costs about 10 percent more than CMOS, the resulting die size for a read channel is smaller, and the performance and power dissipation are "more robust," said Hemant Thepar, DataPath's founder and chief executive officer.
The advantages of BiCMOS for the read channel may give way to an all-CMOS approach as the memory, read channel and digital logic merge, Thepar conceded.
"I believe system-on-a-chip will happen, but it depends on having the right semiconductor technology. We are capable of doing CMOS and are prepared," he said. "At some companies, the right process technology might not have been there for integration. At the right geometry, probably 0.18 micron, the system-on-a-chip approach will be driving down the cost of the discrete solution for the cost-sensitive portion of the market."
DataPath has grown rapidly, partly because of design wins at Seagate Technology. And NEC Electronics (San Jose, Calif.), an investor in DataPath which does all of that company's sales and support, has a "custom" single-chip drive design under development for an important customer, an NEC executive said.