India’s Chips – How Good Is Desi?

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It is exciting to know that India finally has its own set of electronic chips today, thanks to the efforts of our academic institutes and industry players. But how competitive are these when compared to global scales – in terms of technology, quality and cost?

— By Baishakhi Dutta

The Indian chip design industry – including Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) design – is an integral part of the ESDM ecosystem. Growing demand for consumer electronic goods, a burgeoning telecom and networking market, and significant growth in the use of portable and wireless products are driving the growth of the semiconductor design industry. With the top 25 semiconductor companies present in India today, we have found our unique place on the global radar.

Image for representational purpose only

It is until recently that India has started finding its claim to success, in manufacturing, but the fabless design industry has been onto a good start. At present, India is well recognised as a favourable destination for fabless design services. Very recently, India has witnessed some major breakthroughs in the chip design space by some organisations as well as academic institutions to boost the ecosystem. But how do these desi chips fair against the global qualities? What will be the main applicational benefits for electronics manufacturers? Let’s find out.

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‘Made in India’ chips – A closer look
The year 2018 witnessed a hallmark breakthrough in the Indian chip designing space with a declaration by a group of engineers from the Indian Institute of Technology (Madras). The team shared with the world their success story of developing the first indigenously-built microprocessor, for use in mobile computing and wireless devices. Thus began an era of technological breakthroughs and further strengthened when Indian Institute of Technology (Bombay), Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) and Saankhya Labs declared similar achievements, thus showing the country the potential that Indian design ecosystem has. Let’s take a closer look into the desi chips.

SHAKTI by IIT Madras: SHAKTI is India’s first-ever RISC-V architecture based microprocessor for smartphones and IoT devices. SHAKTI was developed in collaboration with Bluespec, a US-based semiconductor tool design company and creator of an electronics hardware description language (HDL) named after the company. The Bluespec HDL was used to write functions into the chip. Earlier, chips were used to be designed in Verilog, which is a complicated language. Whereas in Bluespec, one can mathematically analyse the code to check for a bug. Bluespec also doesn’t let the chip commit a certain set of mistakes which typically happens with Verilog. So, the SHAKTI program is not just about evaluating chips but also use newer technologies for developing the chips.

AJIT by IIT Bombay: Engineers from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT Bombay) have developed a new microprocessor called AJIT—the first ever microprocessor to be conceptualised, designed, developed and manufactured in India. AJIT marks the first time in the country’s history where the industry, academia and the government have come together.

AJIT microprocessor is less than two US dollar (Rs.100 to be exact)! However, AJIT isn’t going to power a smartphone for it is designed to power India’s satellites for IRNSS. Plans are underway to use AJIT in the receivers being developed for NAVIC or IRNSS, an indigenous navigation system for the Indian subcontinent. The processor has a clock speed of around 70-120MHz and is built on a 180nm technology. The clock speed of 400-500MHz is achievable in the next upgrade.

Pruthvi-3 by Saankhya Labs: It is an improvement over the previous Pruthvi chip (Pruthvi 1) that was launched in 2015, and can be used in multiple communication products including mobile devices, broadcast television, satellite communications and defence communications. Pruthvi-3 is a fully programmable multi-standard chipset that supports next-generation broadcast standards.

Available in multiple package options (SL3000 and SL4000), Pruthvi-3 will enable live broadcast TV capability on mobile devices and support video offload services from mobile networks to broadcast network. The Pruthvi-3 is an “advanced SDR SoC” manufactured in “28-nm (nanometre) FDSOI (Fully Depleted Silicon On Insulator)” process supporting advanced “Physical Layer” functionality. The chip is ready for emerging technologies like 5G, machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI). Saankhya Labs is pioneering a concept called 5G broadcast that marries both ML and 5G.

Unnamed by C-DAC: C-DAC has been entrusted with the mission of the development of an indigenous design of a family of microprocessors, IPs, SoCs and ecosystem supporting the product development to meet India’s requirements for strategic, industrial and commercial sectors. Krishna Kumar Rao, project-in-charge of microprocessor development program informed that CDAC successfully completed the design, coding and testing of a series of 64-bit single/dual/quad core superscalar out-of-order high-performance processors based on RISC-V Instruction Set Architecture, multi-level caches, memory management unit and coherent interconnect.

The microprocessor IPs are customizable for better performance/power targeted for various strategic/industrial/commercial applications. The SoC devices will be fabricated embedding the 64-bit Quad core microprocessor operating at 2.0GHz targeted for various embedded applications like vehicle tracking systems, set-top box, secure router, smartphone, tablet PC, etc.

Chip name Developed by Technology used Application areas
SHAKTI (6 families of processors) IIT Madras RISC V Instruction Set Architecture (ISA) 1) E-class for smart-cards, IoT sensors, motor-controls and robotic platforms
2) C-class for low-end mobile 
phones, industrial controllers
3) I-class for compute , mobile, storage and networking the mobile and networking segments
4) M-class for desktop type applications
5) S-class for servers
6) H-class for supercomputers
Pruthvi 3 Saankhya Labs Samsung Foundry 28nm FD-SOI (fully depleted silicon on insulator) technology Applications vary from broadcast, rural broadband to satellite communication and defense communication
AJIT IIT Bombay SPARC Instruction Set Architecture (ISA) It’s designed to power India’s satellites for IRNSS
Unannounced C-DAC RISC-V ISA, Pipelined Harvard Architecture Strategic applications, industrial usage, vehicle tracking systems, Set-top Box, Secure Router, Smartphone, Tablet PC etc.

(A comparative analysis of the desi chips)

No compromise on testing and certifications
The major payoff of an invention kicks in when any kind of compromise is done at the testing and certification stage. Hence, with the immediate announcement of the ‘Made in India’ chips, a series of concerns started flooding in from the nook and corner of the country. To answer some of those questions, we sought views from the experts themselves who have been spearheading such groundbreaking inventions.

Commenting on SHAKTI, G.S Madhusudan, senior project advisor of IIT Madras stated that all their testing methodologies are open source. A lot of testing was done before the chip goes for fabrication. After the chip is fabricated, the foundry or the entity that manufactures the chip also goes through chip-level testing. After that, the standard test, as well as some application test, is done to check the stability and the performance of the chip. “We follow standard industry norms, but one highlight of the SHAKTI program is called formal verification. There are mathematical methods by which one can simply look at the code and decide whether it is correct or not. So mathematically it is impossible for a bug to come”, said Madhusudan.

The Pruthvi-3 chipset also underwent testing both in the design and manufacturing phases. It follows a list of standardised tests from a manufacturing and environmental perspective. The functionality gets tested by Saankhya Labs as well as by customers. The certification of the system varies according to applications (e.g automotive, defense etc.)

In the case of the AJIT microprocessor, the design-level verification is taken care of by IIT-B, while the fab-level test is done by the Semi-Conductor Laboratory (SCL). Fabricated semiconductor chips undergo a rigorous semiconductor test (in IC tester), or automated test equipment (ATE). Depending upon the requirement, the fabricated semiconductor chip conforms to various standards such as MIL, radiation hardening Rad Hard), etc. It conforms to safety standard test(s). “For the processor, two important parameters that have to be evaluated are the instruction set and the 32/64-bit word and speed”, says Debashish Dutta, ex- MeitY, who has championed the project.

At par with the international standards?
This leads us to another crucial question, are these chips ready to compete at the international level? Madhusudan said that there are three broad parameters of evaluating are chip – performance, power consumption and size. The instruction set (also known as the DNA of a chip) of the SHAKTI microprocessor is an international standard called RISC – V. “The language to be used by the chip for computation is decided by 20-30 people across the world. All the standards are decided by an international committee which guarantees the chip to be at par with anything else out there in the market”, assured Madhusudan.

Parag Naik, CEO of Saankhya Labs while commenting on Pruthvi-3 stated that their customers are from the tier 1cities and expect and ensure quality to international standards. However, he shares his concern that there somehow seems to be a feeling that Indian companies don’t measure up to quality.

Value for money
The inception of the first group of indigenous chips is definitely an exciting achievement for the Indian electronics industry. But electronics manufacturers as well customers are asking an important question along the lines – will these chips be economically beneficial?

Dutta says, “There are two parts of the cost – one is the design cost including the intellectual property rights (IPR), and the other fabrication cost including volume of scale.  Cost of fabrication has again two parts – one NRE (non-recurring expenses) and the second recurring (volume). Established international semiconductor fabs have a pricing advantage due to the ecosystem, supply chain, etc. Indian designed chips can same on account of the IPR cost etc.”

Madhusadan gives SHAKTI as an example, “In terms of upfront cost, it is cheaper. But more importantly, our design is also very optimal in terms of manufacturing. So ultimately the cost of the chip is tied more or less to the size of the chip.”

Ready to go bulk?
While the Indian fabless industry has made a mark for itself in the global marketplace, our presence in the manufacturing space is close to negligible when it comes to bulk production of chips.

Naik stated that chip manufacturing requires billions of dollars of investment and opex to keep the factories running. According to him, as a country India should focus first on design skills which will eventually help to strngthen the hardware ecosystem. A similar view has been shared by Dutta who strongly belives that India is not yet ready for bulk chip manufacturng. However, commenting abpout AJIT, Dutta opined that the researchers expect that they will be able to manufacture the microprocessor in bulk within a year or two with keeping the cost as little as Rs.100 ($1.50 approx).

Open Source – The major game changer
The contribution of open source technologies has been quite profound with the introduction of open source EDA tools helping engineers design chips quicker and in an inexpensive manner. With the introduction of open source architecture like RISC-V and so on, the involvement of open source in electronic chip design has become even more impactful.

Naik is of the opinion that currently open source technology is nonexistent when it comes to chip manufacturing but a huge potential lies ahead in the field of chip designing. Open source could play a part in the design process in terms of EDA tools etc. Madhusudan commented that the open source chip movement has just started but how it will change the world is something that remains to be seen.

The widespread implementation of RISC-V points out to some of the advantages which are beneficial for both the chip designer and the manufacturer. All chips follow an instruction set architecture. So when you write a high-level computer program, the language compiler breaks it down into the commands which the chip can understand. RISC-V allows any company to experiment with CPU design in order to prevent creating cumbersome designs. Hence, project coordinators and designers strongly suggest the Indian designers to switch over to open source completely, with RISC-V and ARM taking the industry by storm.

The final take
A closer look at the indigenously developed chips denotes the rapidly changing Indian design environment. Concerns like technological implementation, cost, issues related to standards, quality control and so on have been nicely addressed by the researchers who have put in their blood and sweat into creating a new realm of a technological breakthrough. All these factors assure us that the country’s design space is matured enough to step into the next level of business, i.e. the chip manufacturing. It is only a matter of time, to see the much-awaited dream turn into a reality!

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