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25th Anniversary: Mindtree CTO on Electronics' Evolution and India's Engineering Revolution

Comments(0)Filed under: embedded systems, microprocessor design, computer design, consumer electronics design, Mindtree, S Janakiraman, Indian engineers

S Janakiraman (Jani) has been an engineer since before the dawn of the electronic design automation era. When he started, he was handcrafting designs and building systems with a then-whopping 4Kbytes of DRAM. The explosion in tools, design methodologies, and productivity—not to mention his front-row seat to the Indian electronics revolution—makes him an excellent interview for our Cadence 25th Anniversary blog series. Today, Jani is president and chief technology officer for Mindtree, the global IT, IP, and design-services company  (a longer biography is listed at the end of this article). He talked to us about the evolution of electronics design, the advent of global engineering teams and the enabling forces of EDA tools.

Mindtree CTO S Janakiraman

Q: Jani, you've seen some amazing change in your career. What were some of the highlights?

A: The last 25 to 30 years have seen phenomenal change in the semiconductor industry landscape. The fundamental trigger happened with digital semiconductor circuitry but specifically the microprocessor that revolutionized the whole electronics industry. I give credit to the microprocessors from Intel and Motorola and the advances in microprocessor integration since then, with wireless and other functionality being added.

When we started talking about Moore's law in those days, I thought maybe it would be interesting for three to five years and some things would sustain. But the surprising thing is Moore's law has held for such a long time. The level of integration was not imaginable then. We weren't thinking of process nodes that we have today. Frankly, for me, it was a pleasant surprise. It's making design simpler than it otherwise would have been.

When I did my first memory board design, it had 4K of memory on one DRAM, and 256K used to be considered a significant memory size. Today, we're looking at 32 and 64Gbytes! The way memory technology has evolved so rapidly is amazing. We couldn't have tapped the power of microprocessor without this.   

Q: Talk a little bit about the EDA evolution you've experienced in that time and how it contributed to design engineering.

A: Design automation is more efficient and productive than when I did my first design. Then, we handcrafted the design. We would need to go through the data sheets and understand characteristics and see how to interface each of them. From there, the EDA revolution brought us a lot, not only in terms of models for each semiconductor gate and functionalities that could be integrated but the level of verification that could be done in advance because things were getting complex and expensive. Things needed to be simulated beforehand. Such designs were possible only by evolution of EDA.

Mixed-signal design tools have been a huge innovation for design. It used to be just analog design and digital design, and we couldn't imagine integrating them. Mixed-signal technologies that have evolved have been very beneficial. That helps us integrate several once-separate products in a single chip and create, for example, a watch. That integration has happened because of mixed-signal technology.

Future Trends

Q: Given all that you've seen, what do you see for the future of design?

A: I see the immediate wave for the semiconductor industry will be from the Internet of Things. Home, road, automotive all are being semiconductor enabled, and they're all connected through the Internet. That will really multiply our opportunity. Mobile will increase semiconductor consumption even more. And today machine-to-machine and person-to-machine systems are becoming the next level of semi consumption.

The major challenge that I see is process nodes are touching the limit. Are we going to be successful with stackable approaches to design? Is there a new kind of semiconductor tech that will happen in the future that we can take advantage of? The other challenge that I see is the chip designs have become extremely costly. Think of a semiconductor design in the context of its node and densities: You're looking at an $8-$10 million investment, at least, on the table. Startups are becoming rare, and the level of investment for a chip is costly. Is there something new coming that will make this affordable?

Take for example 3D printing. You could prototype your chip at your office in a small fab. That might take another 10 to 15 years but we need to think how are we going to improve productivity and cost per design.

Q: How have engineering teams evolved over that time?

A: The engineering team of 20 to 25 years back had to worry about the basic characteristics of transistors and gates, and how to make them interface properly. Today, the focus isn't so much on the functionality of those gates and transistors because they're preassembled as IP blocks. Today's challenge is innovation: How do you differentiate your product with respect to your competition. What's your secret sauce? How do you put things together so others can't easily replicate your design? It's evolved from basic processes and functionality to innovation and functionality.

Q: That, and we design around the clock, around the world today, right?

A: Without the kind of evolution in communications technology and growth in huge bandwidth networks, we couldn't work as one global team. The critical success factor that has defined global electronics development has been communications and bandwidth as well as EDA tools evolution and licensing models. I see that around-the-clock designs are happening at one end of the world and verification happens somewhere else. It's as if all the teams are working under one roof.

That is a gift. That has happened because of strong EDA design.

Into the Cloud?

Q: Jumping off from that, how do you see EDA tools and services evolving in the cloud-computing era?

A: The processing power is amazing. We will be able to upload the design, do synthesis and other functions much faster and more efficiently. Design teams can be more productive. The cloud is a miracle and that's the evolution that has happened.

Q: EDA vendors haven't soared into the cloud yet because there are concerns about the security of designs being worked on in the cloud and concerns about the types of EDA tools (and business models) that are best suited for cloud applications.

A: Security is not something new; it has been a concern since the dawn of the Internet. I have seen organizations hesitate to go global because they were worried about connectivity and the public network. Today, there's a private cloud to immediately alleviate those concerns.

Today, a semiconductor company that has teams designing globally, can think of a private data center and private cloud to start with. Downstream, as the public cloud becomes a reality and evolves for trivial and mission-critical apps and as security provisioning on the cloud mature, these concerns will go away. I think it's a matter of just three to five years.

Already the private cloud is a reality in company like Mindtree. We're looking at some apps that are critical in moving into a hybrid cloud: some run on private and some run on public. These concerns are natural. We have faced in the past and overcome it. Now it'll be to the cloud.

As for what EDA tools are best suited to be cloud-based, I believe that processing-intensive tasks can be done on premises but collaboration and integration can be leveraged through the cloud after a basic level of processing and synthesis is done. Data bottlenecks can be overcome, and bandwidth also goes higher in the future.

Indian Revolution

Q: Back when you were starting out, did you envision the role Indian engineers and Indian design engineering would play today?

A: I've seen two eras. Until 1990, India was a closed economy. Most of the things needed to be invented here. We used to design our own databases and operating systems and our own compilers because the Indian economy was not open. That hurt progress at time. But if India didn't have a closed economy from '79 to '91, we wouldn't have learned the technology on our own. We would be assemblers of computers. We had to understand how computers are designed, put together, how tools are made, how compilers are designed. We built skills and capabilities.

But at the right timein '91 and '92the economy opened. There was more import/export freedom. And then networking technology took off, as did Internet and client-server technology. The world got flattened. Whatever knowledge we got we were taking it to the world, collaborating with worldwide leaders and providing design services. And we were able to attract investment here, and IBM and  Compaq and others built design centers here.

That happened because of talent and cost structure, and at the same time networking. Today, India has the talent and capability to do complex designs. We were able to make things happen. It is something that's a pleasant surprise for us. We're enjoying fruits of investments in the early years. 

Q: What do you want to see from EDA vendors in the future?

A: That's a tough question. How do we bring down the fabrication costs? I don't know whether EDA can help on that front or the semi-equipment industry.

My major worry is that in recent times the semiconductor industry has slowed down because the cost structure is unviable for smaller companies to innovate. That kind of innovation has slowed. How do we bring down the cost structure in terms of making new chips happen? Whether EDA does that or some miracle elsewhere happens remains to be seen, of course. That could revolutionize things. Otherwise it'll be more incremental innovation and re-engineering.

 

In his role as CTO, Jani directs Mindtree's technology vision. Jani has built the Product Engineering Services business of Mindtree since its inception. A strong technologist, Jani created a deep research division that works on building Ready to Integrate (R2I) Intellectual Properties and Ready to Brand (R2B) Products in future technologies.

Prior to Mindtree, Jani spent 19 years with Wipro, leaving as the Chief Executive of its Global R&D division.

Jani is the President of the Indo-Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industries (IJCCI), Karnataka. He is the founding member of India's Semiconductor Association (ISA), serving its Executive Council for the first five years and later as Chairman and Advisor of ISA.

Jani holds a Bachelor's degree in Electronics and Communications from the National Institute of Technology (NIT), Trichy, India, and a Master's degree in Electrical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Chennai, India.

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