MILPITAS, Calif. -- LSI Logic Inc. is preparing to enter the read-channel IC market for hard-disk drives as one major player--Texas Instruments Inc.--pulls out of the business. At this week's Diskcon trade show in San Jose, LSI Logic disclosed plans to use read-channel technology from recently acquired DataPath Systems Inc. to offer both standard products and customized ASICs for disk-drive applications, starting in the third quarter of 2001.
LSI Logic's push into the read-channel IC business comes at a time when TI decided to drop its efforts and redeploy scarce analog-chip designers to other projects in networking and communications applications (see Sept. 19 story). LSI Logic in Milpitas intends to leverage intellectual property it gained in its $420 million stock purchase of San Jose-based DataPath (see July 17 story).
At the time of the purchase, much attention was placed on DataPath's technology for communications applications, such as IP design blocks for asynchronous digital subscriber line (ADSL), cable modems and high-performance tranceivers, but LSI Logic also picked up advanced read-channel capabilities as well, said Chris Dixon, director of strategic accounts for the company's Storage ASIC Division.
"DataPath didn't sell products under its own name, but it worked with semiconductor suppliers in the disk-drive chip markets," Dixon explained in an interview. "A sixth-generation architecture for read-channel functions is being implemented by both DataPath and LSI Logic's Storage ASIC Group."
The first offering will be standard products, aimed at a range of disk-drive applications in desktop PCs and low-end servers, Dixon said. "This is the 'low-end of the high-end' drive market, with 300-to-1,200 megabit-per-second data rates and 1-dB improvement in signal-to-noise ratio over fifth-generation read channels from DataPath."
The standard products will be hitting the market in the third quarter, followed by integrated designs using embedded read-channel blocks for ASICs. The improvement in signal-to-noise ratio will enable drive makers to make tradeoffs in the use of storage medium in hard disks, either using a lower-cost media for the same storage density or increasing storage in existing products, according to LSI Logic.
The ultimate target is supplying "disk-on-a-chip" products, which embed the read-channel functions with RISC processors and other subsystem blocks, Dixon said. "No embedded read-channel solution is shipping right now, and we are aiming to intercept the market at this point," Dixon said.
To do that, LSI Logic will go up against established market leaders Lucent Technologies Inc. and Cirrus Logic Inc., as well as Marvell Semiconductor Inc., which announced it was expanding its activities into the desktop drive market from its current base of read-channel chips for portable computers and enterprise systems.
Marvell in Sunnyvale, Calif., was one of the first companies to pioneer an all-CMOS read-channel, at a time when competitors were advocating BiCMOS for speed and noise immunity. "When Marvell started in 1996, everybody said they were crazy," noted analyst Xavier Pucel, who is semiconductor research program manager at International Data Corp. "It was one thing to do a 300-megabits per second read-channel in CMOS, but how were they going to get to 1 gigabits/second everyone was targeting for 2001. But Marvell has proven that CMOS is working in this range," he added.
Sehat Sutardjia, president and chief executive officer of Marvell, said the ability to render mixed-signal circuits in digital CMOS will serve his company's efforts to compete in the market for Gigabit Ethernet physical-layer (PHY) circuits. Both disk drive read-channels and Gigabit Ethernet PHYs have the same requirements of CMOS: very high-speed and low power consumption, Sutardjia said. The only difference is that one drives magnetic media, and the other drivers copper twisted-pair cable, he said.
Sutardjia said the 750-to-800-Mbit/s read-channel ICs that Marvell developed for high-end drives could now be targeted to high-volume desktop drives. In addition, the company has acquired an embedded memory expertise and is partnering with a controller maker to implement an integrated "superchip"--the much-vaunted single-chip solution for disk drives. Like Marvell's current read-channels, these devices will fabricated in 0.18-micron CMOS by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (TSMC), Sutardjia said.
But LSI Logic believes it will have an advantage over fabless semiconductor suppliers, like Marvell, because it operates it own advanced CMOS wafer fabs. "We will not rely upon outside foundries to serve this high-volume market, and we are able to control the CMOS technology for mixed-signal analog functions used in these embedded read-channel ICs," said LSI Logic's Dixon.
--Additional reporting from Stephan Ohr and David Lammers of EET