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May - 2008 - issue > Cover Story
Rambus Thriving on Radical Innovation
Christo Jacob
Sunday, May 4, 2008
When Prakash Bare, Managing Director of Rambus India came home one evening, he found his nine year-old daughter, an avid gamer fiddling with ‘Resistance: Fall of Men’ on Sony PlayStation3 (PS3). Bare tells us with a grin, “I've given up on games. Competing with my daughter is… well, it's so humiliating. I am getting killed in a game and I don't even know what's going on.”

Still, Bare is proud to own a PS3. Though he is not an avid gamer, Bare is excited to bring in Rambus’ technology into the PlayStation. He adds, “What makes the aliens and bullets come to three-dimensional life on the PlayStation is Rambus’ XDR memory that interacts at high speed with the graphic processor inside.” Each PlayStation3 uses four Extreme Data Rate (XDR) memory devices which deliver a whopping 25.6GB/s bandwidth. Over 10 million PlayStation3 units have already been sold — that's in excess of 40 million XDR devices shipped from some of the world’s largest DRAM manufacturers. Added to this, Extreme Data Rate Dynamic Random Access Memory (XDR DRAM) is used in other consumer applications. The party at Rambus has just begun as the company’s customer has shipped over 50 million XDR DRAM devices worldwide.

XDR DRAM can operate at a mind blowing 4.8 GHz clock-speed, providing industry-leading bandwidth per pin, which is a benefit for gaming, graphics, computing, and consumer applications. The XDR memory architecture features a number of advanced technologies built on patented Rambus innovations that include low-voltage, low-power Differential Rambus Signaling Level (DRSL) Octal Data Rate (ODR) technology that transfers eight bits of data each clock cycle, FlexPhase circuit technology for precise on-chip alignment of data with clock, and Dynamic-Point-to-Point (DPP) for both enhanced signal integrity and scalability.

The continuous effort of Rambus to innovate new technologies has brought many giants in the industry like Texas Instruments (TI) to adopt their technology. Last year, TI adopted Rambus’ XDR memory architecture in its Digital Light Processing (DLP) technology. This technology adopted in projectors provide unmatched image quality and stunning color, and is ideal for displaying movies, sports, games, or digital photos.

Moreover, early last year Qimonda AG, a global producer of DRAM memory products, signed a technology license agreement for the Rambus XDR memory interface solution. The Rambus XDR solution was implemented in Qimonda's 75 nm process technology for integration into high-volume applications, including game consoles, digital televisions, set-top boxes, and PC graphics.

Rambus is overjoyed that it has now licensed XDR memory controller interface cell (XIO) and XDR memory controller (XMC) to Toshiba Corporation. The XDR technology is thus set to be used by Toshiba for next-generation high-definition television (HDTV) chipsets. “HDTVs now require as much memory bandwidth as many PCs in order to deliver the advanced features consumers demand,” says Bare. “With the XDR memory architecture, we are able to deliver superior performance,” He continues.

Rambus’ technology will enable Toshiba’s HDTV chipset to deliver state-of-the-art image processing performance. In short, the use of the Rambus XDR memory architecture will make sure features like 1080p+ resolution, 120Hz refresh rates, 12-bit color, and multiple full HD Picture-in-Picture (PiP) data streams are supported and working great with Toshiba's upcoming HDTVs.

Initial Days
Rambus always had plenty going for it. It was founded in 1990 to solve a critical problem in computer technology. The speed of microprocessors, which crunch data, had improved so quickly that they far exceeded the rate at which memory chips could provide that data. Founders Mike Farmwald and Mark Horowitz, both Stanford Ph.D.s, invented a way to connect the two types of chips that would dramatically improve the speed at which data could be moved from memory to microprocessors. Farmwald and Horowitz had no desire to build a chip-fabrication facility, however they set up shop as an intellectual-property company. They would sell their technology to chip manufacturers and make money on royalties and consulting fees. They called their technology Rambus DRAM (RDRAM). By all accounts, RDRAM was a giant leap forward — it radically built the new high-speed specialty DRAM for next generation memory devices.

Because of the company's small size, IP business model, and its entrepreneurial focus on radical innovation Rambus' executives challenged industry norms with an alternative dominant logic for positioning itself within the semiconductor industry. Since its beginning in 1990, the company has filed about 1,200 patents out of which roughly 700 have been granted. The impact of Rambus' innovation is unassailable. The company's patented technology is critical to the performance of all kinds of electronic products, from PCs to HDTVs to game consoles.

What fosters innovation is the open and collaborative culture at Rambus. It is the same culture that thrives in its India office too, which was established in March 2005. The culture to innovate is in the DNA of the company. The impetus for this factor is its hiring strategy. Most of the senior executives at Rambus are relocated from the U.S., more than half of the engineering team hails from elite institutions like the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and nearly 70 percent of the employees have a masters’ degree or Ph.D.

Moreover, to continue the pulse of innovation, rigorous motivation coupled with aggressive corporate goals foster the engineers and executives at Rambus. Hence, the constant interaction with the U.S. folks and onsite trainings make folks at Rambus India center consistent and meet the global standards.

From the early days of the center where the engineers used to design 130 nm technologies, the team’s sharp learning curve saw them moving up the geometries and they are at present designing at 45/40 nm nodes. The technical caliber of the center could go up only because the young engineers picked up from elite institutes gelled well with experienced returnees from the U.S. and industry experts. It is this spirit of knowledge sharing that has led to several successful tape outs and customer engagements. Today, the center has built significant competencies in the areas of circuit design, digital design, and system engineering.

To date, the Rambus Bangalore team has established itself as a provider of complete engineering solutions around Rambus technologies that include design and verification as well as chip tape-out, bring-up, and characterization. The India engineering team focuses on the development of Physical Layer (PHYs) and digital cores based on Rambus’ technologies, including work in the areas of industry-standard designs such as PCI Express, DDR2, and DDR3 interfaces. They also have important responsibilities for the flagship product XDR and serve as primary engineering contact for several core customer accounts.

Among all, one of the key Rambus India project has been to create XDR solution for HDTV applications. High level mandate for this project from upper management and marketing to the India team was to develop an XDR solution optimized for wide adoption into consumer space including high performance HDTV applications. “HDTV SOCs demand very high performance and a very short time to market. To achieve this, we had to focus on optimization of speed, area and power, completeness of the solution, ease of integration, yield, and manufacturability, and ease of porting for future nodes,” says Abhijit Abhayankar, Director of Engineering.

The wide range of expertise that Rambus developed in last three years in the areas of circuit design, digital design, system engineering, software, verification, and architectural exploration allowed the company to approach the problem comprehensively and come up with a total solution which addressed all the steps from IP integration to production. A significant part of this effort was to create an XDR interface (XIO) PHY cell in a 65 nm technology node. The team had significant PHY design expertise, having done multiple high performance XIO and PCI Express designs in the past. Innovative circuit architecture and careful design helped to create the industry’s fastest memory interface cell running at 4.8 Gbps. This memory interface runs 50 percent faster than previous XIO designs and eight times faster than the fastest specified DDR2 interface speed.

“The team has put a lot of effort during the planning stage, analyzing the requirements and to optimize power, area, programmability, customer side interface and high scale manufacturability. This allowed us to achieve our goal of much improved performance,” mentions Vijay Khawshe, Design Manager for the project. He adds, “We also modified the design flow to make the future porting of the design to other process nodes simpler. The cell has been designed for easy porting to other TSMC processes like 65 nm LP and 40/45 nm nodes. With the modification in the methodology and the flow, the conventional time of design porting in other processes can be reduced from 9-12months to 6-8months.”

The project also involved creation of a configurable and feature-rich digital controller, highly reusable Verification IP and various architectural and verification models. “These components make the Rambus solution more complete and help the end customer with ease of IP integration and overall time to market,” says Vidhya Thyagarajan, Engineering Manager responsible for XDR Memory Controller (XMC) team. XMC design is a highly configurable solution with advanced features to offer a high performance XDR controller function with industry standard and timing friendly interface towards customer’s logic. With this project Rambus India has become the center of excellence when it comes to digital and verification engineering.

“Mixed-signal designs continue to present one of the most challenging design environments and this accomplishment of first-pass silicon success underscores the India team’s competencies in this area,” says Bare.

The strengths of Rambus India center lies in the fact that engineers innovate new methodologies that helped to improve the reuse, quality, and performance of the solution as well as the execution time. They also work closely with the EDA tool vendors who have significant R&D presence in India in order to incorporate newer tools and methodologies to design flow. The young breed of designers with their open mind had an appetite to learn more and actually came up with several innovations in this program. Bare adds, “While proficient designers in the industry are reluctant to break the traditions of methodologies followed, young designers at Rambus India design center were open to new approaches.

Emerging customer activity in India
The proximity of the Bangalore Design Center to many in Rambus’ growing customer base in Asia makes it strategically important. Due to the reduced time differential between India and East Asia, the Bangalore center has deepened its relationships with customers in Japan and Taiwan.

Also, given the fact that several multinational companies that either manufacture consumer devices or supply end products to OEMs have design centers in India, Bare and his team have consciously tried to build relationships in order to influence their future designs.

Even while the gadgets that incorporate its technology are not consumed much locally, what drives them to contribute to the global technology is that the products have large impact and touch the lives of many people. Last year, all the employees at Rambus India center got a Sony PlayStation3, which is powered by Rambus’ XDR memory. As Bare gets his team to expand the envelope of innovation, his daughter should enjoy more of these cool gadgets making their way into his home.

Innovation: Now and Future @ Rambus
* In November last year, the Terabyte Bandwidth Initiative (TBI) to develop a memory architecture aimed at providing a terabyte (1024 gigabytes) of bandwidth to a single processor was done – demonstrated in silicon during the Rambus Developers Forum in Tokyo.

* In early 2007, in a test transceiver, the capability to transfer more than 3.6 Petabits of data i.e., the equivalent of the contents of nearly 100,000 DVDs was achieved while utilizing the power of only two standard AA batteries. A breakthrough level of power performance of only 2.2 milliwatts per giga bits per second, which is less than a third of the power consumed by the previously best-in-class low-power links, was accomplished.

Now Rambus is eyeing at developments in flash memory space. Last month, the company has signed an agreement for DDR engineering services and a memorandum of understanding for future development of MirrorBit Flash memory solutions with Spansion, one of the largest pure-play providers of Flash memory solutions.

Want to ride the Rambus Bus?
A company with a track record of building cutting edge technology applications and is hailed by the customers for its unique professional approach could not have sustained the growth pace without being equally focused on its employees. In fact, this being in limelight, highly motivated employees often find their motivation from working in a pleasant office with a high humor quotient. Rambus is driven by its corporate goal to focus on innovation and creating world-class IP as it continues to grow.

Unlike others, Rambus is not in a number race to scale up its headcount; however it creates an environment of small company with much greater effect globally. Hence life at Rambus is challenging and intellectually stimulating.
People who take pride in building great technology shape the work environment here. This is what makes Narayan Thammaiah, Senior Manager Human Resources lead the team efficiently. “Rambus fosters an environment of personal learning and growth, with the freedom to explore different opportunities throughout one’s career. I am truly amazed by the talented individuals I work alongside everyday; it makes me proud to be part of the team,” asserts Thammaiah.

Headquarters: Los Altos, California
Founded: 1990
Founders: Mark Horowitz, Mike Farmwald
CEO: Harold Hughes
Indian operations started: 2005
India Office: Bangalore
India Headcount: 100
Global Headcount: 430
India Head: Prakash Bare, Managing Director
Revenue: $179.94 million
Market Cap: $1.9 billion
Patents: Over 1000
Offices & Design Centers: India, Japan, Taiwan, U.S., Gerrmany, Korea
Customers: Elpida, Intel, Infineon, NEC, Samsung, Sony, Texas Instruments, Toshiba
Website: www.rambus.com

Rambus: Thriving on Radical Innovation
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