MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. – Fairchild Semiconductor’s status as the grand-daddy of the semiconductor industry is a well-told story. Many Fairchild offspring went forth and begat the semiconductor industry’s great technology advancements. These alumni were also instrumental in founding such successful chip companies as Intel, AMD, National Semiconductor, Linear Technology and many others.
LSI Logic is one of the seminal companies born from Fairchild’s diaspora. But how LSI Logic changed the history and business models of Silicon Valley is a less familiar tale.
When some 350 LSI Logic alumni gathered last Saturday (Nov. 5th) for the 30th reunion of LSI Logic at the Computer History Museum here, they recalled glory days in Silicon Valley and reminisced about unexpected turn of events in the global electronics industry – many of which bore traces of LSI Logic.
photo credit: Marc Havlik
Close to 350 people, mostly LSI Logic alumni and a who’s who of Silicon Valley, showed up at LSI Logic@30 Grand Reunion held at Computer History Museum in Mountain View.
Here are the top ten tales of LSI Logic and Silicon Valley history two EE Times editors picked up while attending the reunion.
1. The $6 million ASIC startup beats the odds
Against all the odds, LSI, then called LSI Logic, founded in late 1980 by Wilfred Corrigan, Bill O'Meara, Rob Walker and Mitchell Bohn, turned built ASIC, a dubious, fledgling technology, into a successful business model.
LSI Logic started with $6 million in venture capital, including money from Sequoia Capital, later adding another $16 million.
At the time, Corrigan noted that skepticism was rampant that LSI Logic, a startup without fab or customers, could compete against Motorola, Texas Instruments, IBM and Japanese giants in the emerging ASIC business.
Designing custom chips “was already a failed business at Fairchild,” said Walker during a reunion panel discussion. “It was a business nobody wanted to be in. And those who were in weren’t doing a good job.” Walker who honed his design methodology skills at Fairchild was LSI Logic’s first vice president of engineering.
In 1982, LSI Logic had $5 million in sales and a loss of $3.7 million. Its first “somewhat questionable” products were gate-array ASICs based on emitter coupled logic (ECL). Soon, it added CMOS-based gate arrays, which became a formula for success.
Determination and its quick turnaround ASIC strategy made LSI Logic competitive. The company went public in 1983, netting $153 million. By 1985, LSI Logic was the largest U.S. ASIC supplier, with sales hitting $140 million.
Today, it’s almost impossible to replicate early upstarts like LSI Logic. Venture capitalists recoil from chip startups, seeing little or no return. Further, with current design and manufacturing costs soaring, starting an ASIC company would cost far more than $6 million. But most important, the difference is people. Unlike the ancient warriors of LSI Logic, who were, and still are, tough, feisty and dedicated, there are fewer risk takers nowadays.
photo credit: David Benjamin Rob Walker, co-founder of LSI Logic, developed rigorous design methodologies, preventing chips from failing. LSI Logic also insisted that its customers complete logic test patterns before manufacturing.
Asked about the secret of the ASIC business success at LSI Logic, Walker said, when his team started its operations, “There were a series of bad designs out there. Our competitors were so incompetent.”
photo credit: David Benjamin Bill
O’Meara (right), co-founder of LSI Logic and responsible for the
company’s marketing and sales, told this story: “When Wilf one day
called me to start a company together, I just said, ‘Yes.’ I did not
know the name of the company, what it would do or how much money I
would be making.”
2. LSI Logic survived
For any chip company in Silicon Valley to last 30 years is remarkable. LSI Logic had its ups and downs. By the late1990’s, the traditional ASIC business was teetering, with fewer designs spun. ASIC costs skyrocketed.
While LSI Logic devised proprietary EDA tools exclusively tied to its fabs, the world turned toward third-party EDA tools and foundries. FPGAs emerged, imitating the concept of “fast turnaround time -- the biggest value proposition LSI Logic invented,” said Ven Lee, LSI Logic’s employee number 13.
Fighting to grow faster through the 1990’s, LSI Logic expanded worldwide, moving into vertical markets and trying risky acquisitions, some of which foundered.
During that era when the standard-cell ASIC model began to fade, LSI Logic could have shared the fate of its closest U.S. rival, VLSI Technology. In 1999, VLSI was acquired by Philips Semiconductors, now NXP Semiconductors, for $1 billion.
In 2005, Corrigan stepped down as LSI Logic’s president and CEO. The company appointed Abhi Talwalkar, an Intel executive, as the new chief. Under Talwalkar LSI re-emerged as a strong networking and storage chip company.
photo credit: David Benjamin Wilf
Corrigan cornered by two EE Times editors, Junko Yoshida and Mark
LaPedus. Corrigan now spends eight months of the year on a yacht,
visiting cities and villages around the world.
3. Failed to recognize FPGA explosion
At the reunion, a celebratory occasion, most panel talk revolved around the good old days at LSI Logic. But in the corridors, ex-LSIers quietly revisited what went wrong at LSI Logic in the early part of this decade. Some said LSI erred in ignoring the FPGA revolution. Many believe the company should have entered the FPGA fray, thereby competing in both ASIC and FPGA worlds.
Since Xilinx invented the first commercial FPGA in 1985, FPGAs and ASICs have competed for the same sockets. In hindsight, LSI Logic could have easily acquired an FPGA company or two. If LSI Logic had done so, Altera and Xilinx might have never come to be.
4. Enabled new system startups: Sun and SGI
LSI Logic has made several significant contributions to the electronics industry. Early on, it devised ASICs for the military, computer and related industries. LSI Logic “also enabled the disk drive industry,’’ Corrigan told EE Times.
Most notably, LSI Logic fueled a new crop of “system” startups in Silicon Valley. They include Sun Microsystems Inc. and Silicon Graphics Inc.
Without LSI Logic closely working with Sun on the Sparc processor, and MIPS’ cores for SGI, the world wouldn’t have seen on the West Coast these young, nimble and powerful workstation companies competing successfully against the East Coast “establishment” of IBM, Burroughs, Wang Laboratories and others.
photo credit: David Benjamin Bill
Gascoyne worked as application engineer and customer trainer at LSI
Logic for 22 years. Asked what made LSI Logic a success, he said: “Training.” And who was the smartest among LSI Logic
customers? “Sun Microsystems.”
5. LSI Logic: One of first fabless chip makers
Founded in 1980, LSI Logic was arguably one of the industry’s first fabless semiconductor companies.
To get into the market, LSI licensed 3-, 2- and 1.5-micron technologies from Japan’s Toshiba Corp. Toshiba was a second source and LSI bought its wafers.
According to Corrigan, Morris Chang, now chairman and CEO of TSMC, was “inspired” by LSI Logic’s fabless efforts, thereby creating the foundry business – then a novel concept. In 1987, pure-play foundry Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) emerged, propelling the fabless industry.
In 1985, LSI Logic moved toward an integrated device manufacturing strategy. With Kawasaki Steel Corp. it formed a fab venture in Japan, dubbed Nihon Semiconductor Inc. So, for a while, LSI Logic had its own fabs. But today, it is fabless again.
photo credit: David Benjamin Ven
Lee, employee No. 13, led LSI Logic’s ASIC design for its first five
years. He spent the following five years directing the standard product
and microprocessor businesses. Speaking of Toshiba-LSI Logic
relationships in the early 1980’s, Lee said the partnership
paved the way for the world’s first fabless model. “Toshiba agreed to
sell wafers to us [LSI Logic], then a startup of 50 employees.”
6. Who copied whom?
In exchange for teaching Toshiba the ASIC business, LSI Logic absorbed Toshiba’s CMOS process technology -- lock, stock and barrel – buying the same manufacturing equipment and systems. LSI Logic became the first to practice “copy exact” methodology, before Intel adopted it and made it famous.
photo credit: David Benjamin David
Baillie (left), the first international application engineer at LSI Logic, now
CEO of CamSemi (Cambridge, U.K.), reminisces with Ven Lee and K.K.
Yawata, who founded LSI Logic Japan.
7. A pioneer in EDA
The EDA industry was born in the early 1980s. Three companies, Daisy, Mentor and Valid, are credited with starting what was then called computer aided engineering (CAE). This trio, commonly called D-M-V, caused a paradigm shift by offering third-party EDA tools for IC design. (Today, Mentor Graphics is the only survivor of the D-M-V era.)
Emerging at the same time, LSI Logic was also an EDA pioneer. In those days, ASIC vendors like LSI Logic devised proprietary tools. LSI’s tools, specific to its own fabs, derived from its proprietary Concurrent Modular Design Environment System, also known as C-MDE. With these tools, customers could create custom gate-array ASICs.
8. My EDA tools are better than yours
By the early 2000’s, the ASIC model was past its prime. ASIC vendors’ tools could not keep pace with those by EDA startups.
Still, LSI Logic, armed with its rigorous methodologies and its own tools, might have become an EDA vendor, or spun off the technology. Some blame LSI for failing to embrace third-party EDA tools. In the end, this reluctance cost the company.
9. Creating an (amazing) CEO talent pool
LSI Logic, where a number of electronics industry CEOs cut their teeth, served as training ground for future business leaders. Listed here are a few ex-LSIers who became CEOs at other companies.
John Daane, president, CEO and chairman of Altera. Daane spent 15 years at LSI Logic. His last position at LSI was executive vice president, communications products group.
Moshe Gavrielov, president and CEO of Xilinx. In the 1990s and 2000s, Gavrielov spent nearly ten years at LSI Logic, where he held several executive management positions.
Brian Halla, formerly CEO of National Semiconductor. Prior to National, Halla served in several executive capacities at LSI Logic. In his last role, he was the executive VP of LSI Logic Products.
Jen-Hsun Huang, co-founder, president and CEO of Nvidia. Prior to founding Nvidia, Huang held engineering, marketing, and general management positions at LSI Logic.
photo credit: David Benjamin Wilf Corrigan (left), who was LSI Logic’s chairman and chief executive for over two decades until 2005, is with Jen-Hsun Huang (right), who was only 22 years old when he joined LSI Logic in the mid 80’s. Huang later co-founded Nvidia and is currently the CEO and president. During the Alumni dinner, Huang described LSI Logic as “an extraordinary chip company, with a clear vision to enable system developers to develop chips.”
Scott Mercer, chairman and CEO of Conexant. Mercer spent seven years at the company, where he was chief financial officer.
photo credit: David Benjamin Rob
Walker with Scott Mercer, who joined LSI Logic just before the company’s
IPO and served as the company’s CFO. Mercer is now president and CEO
Ronnie Vasishta, president and CEO at eASIC. Prior to joining eASIC, Vasishta was vice president of technology marketing at LSI Logic.
10. More new CEOs on the way
More former LSIers, the fire in their bellies still burning, continue to affect the electronics industry. Several ex-LSIers, including Ven Lee, LSI Logic’s co-founder Rob Walker’s first hire, are quietly developing products at startup AnLinx Inc., a company working on noise management technology.
While CEO Lee declined to comment on AnLinx’s technology, saying it is still in stealth mode, here’s what his company’s website says:
“AnLinx has a patent pending circuit technology, MSNoise, that virtually eliminates substrate noise. Without substrate noise, there is no limit to the amount of high performance analog and high performance digital logic that can be integrated on a single chip. Because MSNoise can be implemented on a standard CMOS process, there is no additional cost required.”
The Los Altos, Calif.-based startup includes Ven Lee and Robert Blair. Blair, co-founder and chairman, was also a former executive of LSI Logic.
photo credit: David Benjamin
Junko Yoshida, EE Times editor in chief, with Aabid Husain, vice president of sales and marketing for analog foundry vendor Dongbu HiTek. Husain was a former process engineer at LSI Logic.