SAN MATEO, Calif. A group of former Intel Corp. executives is launching an analog semiconductor company, called Primarion, that plans to improve system performance by focusing on signal integrity. Though the company doesn't expect to bring out its first commercial products until late next year, it is now showcasing its concepts, which it says will boost system performance by as much as 30 percent.
The company plans to design and market a chip that can be added to systems to ensure that signal integrity is maintained as processors surpass the gigahertz barrier. Mike Eisele, a former Intel general manager and now vice president of marketing for HREF="http://www.primarion.com/">Primarion (Tempe, Ariz.), compared the technology to an intelligent sprinkler attached to a garden hose. "The hose is just gushing information, and we can turn on our sprinkler chip in the right spots," he said.
"As digital systems continue their relentless push to lower voltages, higher current and increased performance, a data integrity crisis is occurring where issues like clock skew, lack of noise immunity and soft errors are becoming limiting barriers," said Bill Pohlman, a former vice president and general manager at Intel, and now chairman and chief technology officer for the Primarion.
Primarion was launched six months ago and has already received $13 million in funding from venture capital firms, although most of the initial seed money came from its founders. There are 100 employees now, and the company hopes to add 75 more mostly analog engineers this year. To help recruit those specialized designers, Primarion plans to acquire an analog wafer fab for R&D activities, although mass production will be farmed out to an independent foundry, according to Eisele.
Bob Merritt, senior analyst for Semico Research Corp. (Phoenix), agrees with Primarion's position that signal integrity is likely to become a growing problem for the semiconductor industry. The crux is the time it takes for electrical signals to accelerate to full speed once they are transmitted across a chip; until now that lag has been insignificant, but as chips continue to increase their speed and frequency, it will soon start to make a difference in performance.
The company is calling its concept the active signal integrity architecture (Asia), and Dan Clarke, president of the new venture and another former Intel executive, said Primarion will provide some of its intellectual property to other chip companies so they can modify their processor designs and create an interface for the Primarion chip. Clarke said that the technology can work with digital signal processors, standard PC microprocessors and network processors and that Primarion is targeting the 0.13-micron node for its main push into the market.
With full-scale production now expected in late 2001, Clarke expects to see wide-scale implementation of products in 2002.
Signal integrity "is becoming a genuine issue as bus speeds move above 100 MHz," said Michael Slater, executive editor of Microprocessor Report (Sebastopol, Calif.). "While the processors may be running at speeds higher than a gigahertz, there's no way to make the signals move across the chips at anywhere close to those speeds."
Eisele said that implementing Asia in a system has the effect of allowing the rest of the system to catch up to the speeds of the microprocessors, and that could improve overall system speed by 20 percent to 30 percent. "At first, this will be an option for higher performance," he said. "But eventually, it will become a necessity."