Design firms and the well-educated design work force in Russia have endured difficult times since the fall of communism, struggling to engage the electronics design mainstream in the West. The problem has not been a lack of circuit design expertise or innovation but the ostracism of Russian companies because of their nation's financial fragility. Further, Russian design houses have had only limited access to leading-edge Western design tools and to mainstream Western design culture. The last two go hand in hand.
Nonetheless, a few companies have persevered and are beginning to gain some traction, partly because of the plentiful supply of low-labor-cost Russian engineers.
One example that represents the flowering of formerly government-backed research is the Moscow Center for Sparc Technologies, which is sometimes known as Elbrus. The chief technology officer and founder of MCST is Boris Babayan, father of the company's Elbrus series of microprocessors, of which the latest is the E2K.
Formed in 1992 as government funding was failing what had been an academic institute, MCST now employs more than 500 people, including 50 PhD-level graduates, and places an emphasis on training young specialists from the leading Russian universities. It decided to base its Elbrus microprocessor around the Sparc architecture, became strongly associated with Sun Microsystems Inc. and received numerous Sparc workstations at a time when such workstations were more or less necessary for advanced circuit design.
MCST (www.mcst.ru) has designed several submicron-feature general-purpose microprocessors, chip sets, memory systems and controllers and has also worked on creating CAD systems and libraries for deep-submicron design. Much of the design and library work was done under contract to the West.
The first Russian Sparc-compatible microprocessor, with a feature size of 0.35 micron, was designed at MCST under government contract. But perhaps more important is that, for more than 10 years, MCST has provided support to Sun, to a sequence of EDA companies, to processor developer Transmeta and to European chip vendors Infineon Technologies AG and Philips Semiconductors.
MCST's work with Sun covers compilation, media and multimedia libraries; Java; and the Solaris operating system. Starting in 1994, MCST worked with the Compass division of VLSI Technologies Inc. on CAD library development. Compass was sold to Avanti, which itself was recently bought by Synopsys Inc.
Similarly, when VLSI Technology was sold to Philips Semiconductors, MCST was able to build a relationship with the latter company. It was on the instructions of VLSI Technology that the CAD team at MCST has designed and is providing support for a computer-aided chip-packaging system called the Package Constraints Manager (PCM). PCM is currently in use at Philips, according to MCST.
Projects completed for Transmeta between 1997 and 2002 at the Russian company include design support for floating-point arithmetic units and support for Transmeta's so-called Side by Side tester, a system of synchronous testing for Intel compatibility.
Since 2000, MCST has conducted a number of design projects for Infineon, including the implementation of MPEG-2 codecs and applications and routine libraries for a single-instruction, multiple-data processor.
Also based in Moscow is the Research Center Module (www.module.ru), which was founded in 1990 and has roots in providing neural-network software for military applications. The company built up a portfolio of target-identification software before turning to the commercial market and developing hardware acceleration for its software.
In the mid-1900s, RC Module evolved a design group and tried to become an intellectual-property licensor. The company developed a 64-bit NeuroMatrix device, the NMC6403, a combination of a RISC processor and a vector processor DSP capable of emulating neural networks and supporting neural-net software. The device was originally manufactured by Samsung on a 0.5-micron process. RC Module later intended to port the design to a 0.25-micron process with Fujitsu Microelectronics Europe GmbH; while Fujitsu licensed the design in 1999, it is not clear that the transfer ever happened.
Since developing the NMC6403, RC Module appears to have had more success with complete systems for traffic monitoring and statistics gathering. These comprise target acquisition neural network software repurposed to civilian vehicle identification running on PC boards sporting the NMC6403.
The combination can be used for roadside cameras to automate road occupancy estimation, gathering statistics about various types of vehicles passing at different times of the day in a given lane of the roadway. The system can distinguish among motorcycles, passenger cars and vans, buses and small and large trucks.
A third company that has had success on Russian soil is Scottish-owned Acuid Corp. Ltd. (www.acuid.com), led by Alex Deas, a co-founder of Scotland's Memory Corp. Acuid is based in Scotland but has a Russian engineering base in St Petersburg that employs more than 70 engineers.
Since its formation in 1996, as a buyout from Memory Corp., Acuid has focused on high-speed signaling. The company said that without adding any instrumentation it can measure, down to femtosecond accuracy, the time it takes signals to move from gate to gate.
Acuid said it uses its understanding and control of system timing variation to produce faster and superior circuits. The company offers megacells for a high-speed transmission layer, supporting a range of protocols, including RapidIO and Infiniband. Acuid has also developed a test station based on the high-speed signaling that its technology allows.
Acuid has licensed technology to Mosaid Technologies Inc. and an undisclosed ATE vendor.
At the Design Automation Conference, Acuid discussed the improvements made to its design flow when it switched from Cadence tools to those of Monterey Design Systems. "It was a combination of Russian ingenuity and faster timing closure tools that enabled Acuid to close the design of a 10-Gbit/second PHY/MAC IC with a PCI-X interface in three hours rather than three months, which was the earlier timing closure," said Paolo Petroni, European staff applications engineer at Monterey's office in Meylan, France.
As a boost for future homegrown IC designers who could also benefit from the development of better design tools, Cadence last September contributed its tools to the Moscow Institute of Electronic Technology. MIET will train 25 students a year who are expected to move to positions with international technology companies operating in Russia.
-Nic Mokhoff contributed to this article.