Ankoor Sprouts Indian Product development

Date:   Tuesday , October 31, 2006

In October, 1995, Sham Banerji, Design Manager with Texas Instruments, landed in Bangalore from Houston, Texas, with a mission to build the first ever Digital Signal Processor (DSP) chip from India.

During those days, the two-decade-old Texas Instruments India was flush with success in developing analog and ASIC designs. Bolstered by its track record, TI India was convinced that it could get a new DSP chip designed completely in India.

It did. The result was Ankoor.

Ankoor—meaning sprout in Hindi—was a result of the demand for small and fast converters from analog signals or waves to digital or binary and back, with some signal processing in between. Its advantage was that it was the first chip that combined the function of a DSP and a micro-controller unit, thus freeing up the real estate in hardware. It found its way into hard disk drives, industrial control, medical electronics, scanners, printer, automobile electronics and robotics.

Banerji had to assemble a new 35-member team and was instructed to hire experts from within India with only a few expatriates to fall back on. While Banerji himself was a microprocessor designer, a VLSI test expert came in from France and a couple of others from Cyrix and the state funded Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL). The rest of the team comprised new recruits and TI India engineers working in other departments. Alex Tessorolo, an Australian and a TI veteran was the architect, while a Customer Project Manager was assigned in the U.S. TI sent in inputs from potential customers and its own suggestions.

Interactivity was assured through the use of video conferencing and net meeting tools.
Part of Banerji’s grand plans, unveiled soon after having a team in place, included launching the chip in 100 weeks.
Back in those days, control systems were crowded with multiple chips that not only occupied space but also consumed a lot of power. “There was a need for integration of such systems on a single chip,” says Venkatesh Natarajan, senior member, technical staff and senior technologist-SoC design. “There were lots of architectural requirement in the hard disc drive application, which no CPU was meeting.”

The functionality of the chip was found in none other. “We had to develop a chip that had a very high performance for a very sophisticated control application. But it also needed to be flexible so that it was very easily programmable,” says Banerji, the TI career man, now heading the software development team. It is not always difficult to program a microprocessor but it has its own limitations in doing mathematical functions. On the other hand DSP chips do mathematical functions very well but tend to be little difficult to program.

This is because instructions to program DSP chips need more specialized programming skills. Most DSPs use fixed-point arithmetic, because in real world signal processing, the additional dynamic range provided by a floating point processor is not needed and there is speed benefit too. Ankoor’s constraints and requirements were very unique. To reduce design challenges, the team used In-circuit Emulation design techniques, an expertise found in design teams around the world.

In-circuit emulation is the use of hardware emulation—when the emulator is plugged into a system in place of a yet-to-be-built chip, which is not always a processor. In-circuit emulation provided the team with a way to run the system with live data while still allowing relatively good debugging capabilities. The architecture provided them with the speeds of the DSP, the flexibility and math-intensive abilities of a Micro Controller Unit. It effectively replaced two processors with one. The In-circuit emulator provides a window into the embedded system. The team used the emulator to load programs into the embedded system, run them, step through them slowly, and see and change the data used by the system’s software.

Once the construction problem was solved, another challenge stared at them. As the team was introducing many features in one chip, they had to put ten million transistors in one DSP chip—the highest during the time. Using software techniques and compiler technology, the team was able to overcome the problem of die size. Software code size was another problem. “The Ankoor instruction set was designed in such a way that the result application software was extremely code efficient,” Banerji adds.

Physical designing of a chip on a computer is a slow process and can add to the testers’ design cycle time. So to enhance the layout process, for the first time ever in TI, Silicon Compiler Technology—a software system that takes the user’s specifications and automatically generates an integrated circuit layout was deployed.

Ankoor, launched in Fall-Winter 1998, was a commercial success for Texas Instruments. Over ten million Ankoor based chips were sold. This would have probably garnered $300-$350 million in revenues for TI. Using the IP generated during the development, the team launched two more variants—C3 in 1999 and C4 in 2000-01 with more features.

After three generations, TI stopped the production of this chip series as the instruction set architecture changed. Their new DSP chip Arya and Mantra are based on new instruction sets and the IP generated during the development of Ankoor.

After Ankoor C4, the team members went on to work on other chips as TI had multiple products and assigned the individuals to these projects. “Though Ankoor didn’t change our lives, what did change was the fundamental perception that things can’t be done out of India,” Natarajan says.

Despite being a make or break product development project for the team, they never felt any windfalls. Natarajan says, “Though the whole project was taken from groundup, we had no worries. It’s not that it was a piece of cake, but the way we handled, it looked achievable.” For the team, it was the aggressive startup culture that helped them get through the toughest as well as the greatest moments of their careers. If startup culture was what helped TI India make a product, then Ankoor was a chip that sprouted India’s role as a design center.