eeNews Europe interviewed Joe Barry, vice president for systems and technology at the Cloud and Communications business unit of Analog Devices, to ask about trends in the industry and implications for his company.
The meeting took place at ADI Catalyst, Analog’s development accelerator in Limerick, Ireland. So we started by asking about the reasoning behind the formation of the center (see ADI Catalyst finds favor with Vodafone, Intel, others).
Barry said: “The work started several years ago. We could see that the complexity of semiconductors was disrupting the ecosystem which was likely to become fragmented. We wanted to engage more broadly and identify where to build relationships.”
ADI Catalyst in Limerick allows ADI to work with some of its customers and their customers to compress the development time for solutions created from a system-level viewpoint.
The collaboration seems to be working. OEMs want to make sure upcoming silicon is going to support the features they want to introduce and, similarly, Analog Devices wants to understand use cases for its silicon. It is also increasing being asked to supply algorithms and software which the company is happy to do.
“Customers are facing increasing complexity. Part of this process is us moving up the supply chain because we are being asked to supply software plus chips,” said Barry.
But Analog Devices is a broadline supplier with 75,000 products and 125,000 customers. It cannot take the collaborative approach of ADI Catalyst with all its customers. Barry acknowledges this but said Analog has a way to spread the benefits of collaboration.
Barry states that a lot of the collaborative work is focused on developing platforms that can then be tuned to multiple customers’ requirements. “A lot of platforms are software-defined, to try and help us get scaling. We talk to 20 potential customers and 90 percent of what they want is the same. If one customer asks for something specific we can then provide it.” This could be an algorithmic or software addition or, if justified, a custom component.
Barry points out that customers are increasingly asking a supplier to take responsibility for the end-to-end of the signal chain rather have customer have to select multiple chip suppliers and be responsible for all the interfaces between chips. He gives the example of communications where Analog has a strong position in RF units and cooperates with Marvell on beamforming and Intel on the back-end.
We point out that for now the ADI Catalyst building as has an open-plan, ballroom-style physical approach but that this is likely to be unacceptable for many collaborations. “That is part of the physical build-out of the space. We can reconfigure the space with secure areas,” Barry said.
We next asked about advanced packaging or heterogeneous assembly – where bare die made using different process technologies are brought together in a multi-die component. This chiplet style assembly that is pioneered in high performance computing and GPU-plus-memory arrays for the datacentre.
Shortening the distances between die, and improving architectures, can be key to saving power. Although the availability of a complete ecosystem in chiplet assembly is limited with supply bottlenecks.
Will chiplets also impact Analog Devices in the application sectors it addresses?
“We’re looking at chiplets very seriously. In the past there was tendency to go monolithic but take the example of radar; you might want to high-speed converters in a highly optimised mixed-signal process but something more digital, like beam forming, could use a 7nm or 5nm process. We are taking active interest in interconnect SERDES standards and things like UCI express.”
Barry said there are challenges with the availability of advanced packaging from OSAT firms. There are also challenges around characterizing bare die. “For high-performance RF how do you get known good die? The supply chain has improved. I think over the next four or five years we will see a switch to heterogeneous integration,” said Barry.
Heterogeneous integration is likely to open up component architectures up to function-by-function competition. Some companies may provide chiplets while others will be responsible for some chiplets and the complete component. “Our preference is to be the integrator,” said Barry, while acknowledging there may also be good business to be had in providing bare die.
Barry said a lot of collaboration is still required but that Analog is active in such groups as
JEDEC 204 serial interface for die-to-die communications and UCIe, the de facto standards body for heterogenous integration.
“We have a lot of experience in making modules for our aerospace business, for power, as well as in passive [device] integration,” said Barry. He added that Analog Devices has experience in getting the best out of PCBs and laminated substrates to mitigate against warping under heat. Laminates would likely remain a lower-cost solution than the glass-cored and glass substrates being touted for high-performance computing, he said.
Barry said that one implication could be a distinct increase in the amount of packaging manufacturing Analog Devices is prepared to do in-house
It is noticeable that Analog Devices now includes edge processing, artificial intelligence and machine learning as part of a definition of what it delivers across multiple business segments. It is also notable that Analog has appointed a CTO with an AI background (see Analog Devices appoints AI-savvy research exec as CTO).
Barry observed that AI divides between what it can do internally within Analog’s chips and what if can do externally in customers’ products. “In general, we are seeing a movement from static AI solutions in the cloud towards on-demand solutions in the product.” As with all data processing this reduces latency and improves power consumption.
“We are seeing AI used in radio products and in power distribution in servers. In one sense it is an expansion of traditional DSP algorithms,” said Barry. There are distinctions here in the fundamental architecture and in the determinism of solutions achieved. And does this mean that Analog will become an edge AI processor vendor?
As to the lack of determinism, Barry said it is possible to hybridize AI processing with safety guards that can prevent a system going out of bounds. As to the source of the processing that would be decided on a case-by-case basis. Given Analog’s system-level view of the world it may be prepared to license-in AI technology or buy-in bare die processors, or design its own AI processors. As has always been the case there are build or buy decisions to be made.
But AI is definitely coming and will implications across every application sector, said Barry.
“We’re ready to engage in that sort of world. Reliability is important to many of our customers and things like predictive maintenance scheduling based on AI can be valuable,” said Barry.
As a last topic we asked how quantum computing and communications could impact Analog Devices. Barry said it will albeit with a further off time horizon.
“We’re looking at superconducting loops and precision instrumentation. Right now we are in the middle of a qubit race,” said Barry. This race covers both the number of qubits and the underlying technology between cryogenic electronic technologies, and spin- and photon-based technologies. “When you get to 1,000-plus qubits it can have an impact in terms of the sorts of processing that they can do,” said Barry.
“We are working with the leaders but it is probably on a five- to ten-year horizon,” said Barry.
For now, Analog Devices is focused on outperforming competitors. “The only sustainable competitive advantage is time. You get there first and keep moving forward,” said Barry.