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Dubai builds silicon from sand

Posted: 28 May 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Dubai IC market? IC design? software development?

Dubai is prepping the Dubai Silicon Oasis (DSO), a multibillion- dollar project with the objective of establishing the country as a leading center for electronics innovation, design and development.

The project is the brainchild of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, VP and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and ruler of Dubai, and is evolving against a backdrop of rapid economic change and development for the emirate as it looks to shift from an oil- and conspicuous-consumption-based economy to one known for educational excellence and technological development. Oil now constitutes only 3 percent of the emirate's GDP!vs. almost 70 percent for neighboring Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE!with tourism and real estate claiming the bulk of Dubai's economy. As a result of the massive boom in construction, 43 percent of the world's cranes now reside in Dubai, compared with 37 percent in China.

In his opening remarks at the 17th International Electronics Forum (IEF), Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, chairman of the Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority (DSOA), noted the emirate boasts one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, with an 8.7 percent growth rate that's seen rising to 9 percent by 2010. That growth, he said, is a direct result of Dubai's investments in infrastructure, its policy of zero personal and corporate taxes and its encouragement of a free flow of capital and people. "We have the strength and experience, and we're laying the foundation for sustained growth," he said.

The emirate is now looking to technology to contribute to that growth.

'Technology city'
It hasn't been easy. Dubai started with no infrastructure, no track record in electronics R&D, no technical universities to speak of, and no apparent end to its spiraling real-estate costs. Then there's the spotty track record of other would-be tech hubs. At the closing panel of the IEF, the discussion turned to how earlier efforts in Scotland and England had fizzled. In India, Bengaluru has been successful, but its growth has been hampered by political wrangling and poor infrastructure. China, too, is growing fast, but politics and a spotty intellectual-property protection record are nagging concerns.

Dubai's attempt to fly in the face of history started in 2004, with the DSOA's formation. The activity kicked into high gear in April 2007, when the DSOA commenced operations and hired Jihad Kiwan as its chief technology officer. Kiwan's mission is to leverage his industry experience and contacts to attract top-quality companies and designers to the region. He said he was attracted by the scope of the project!the largest technology development effort in the world!as well as the chance to help establish the first technology hot spot in an Arab region.

"The first three years we were spent on infrastructure development," Kiwan said, referring largely to the $2 billion-plus spent thus far on constructing a fully self-sufficient "technology city" that the DSOA hopes will become an innovation hotbed but that will also cater to the personal needs of the expatriates!and their families!who will reside there.

"We're not building a technology park, we're building a technology city," said Kiwan. "If you want to attract companies from outside, you have to make their lives the same [as they were at home]."

To that end, the city!literally rising up out of the dunes!will have housing, shopping malls, hospitals, recreation centers, parks and universities.

Kiwan was careful to note that while the Dubai government is behind the project, it's not picking up the full tab. "We sold land to external investors and then reinvested that [money] in infrastructure," he said. The funds went toward what are currently 65km of roads, as well as a vast optical communications network, a central DSOA building, landscaping, and construction of housing and academic facilities. Eventually, the city will accommodate up to 150,000 people, of whom Kiwan expects 25,000 to be engineers.

The Dubai airport is 20 minutes away and will soon be supplanted by a larger airport that will have up to 11 parallel runways. "It'll be the largest airport in the world," said Khaled Abdulla, senior manager of corporate communications and business development for the DSOA. Putting it in perspective, he noted that London Heathrow "only has three" parallel runways.

Building a hub
The DSOA is aware that buildings and infrastructure alone won't attract high-tech investment. The lack of corporate and personal income taxes helps, as does Dubai's geographical "hub" location with respect to North Africa, Europe and southern Asia; the emirate is within seven hours' flying time of two-thirds of the world. And there are more subtle attractions and support structures being put in place.

For one, Dubai is focused on ensuring IP protection. And since it's hard for a tech hub to get off the ground without a university system to provide fundamental research and a steady supply of highly qualified grads who stay in the region, the DSO is about to sign a partnership deal with the Rochester Institute of Technology to have six masters' degree programs and three certificate courses start in September. A doctorate offering will follow.

"The degree they get from RIT Dubai will be identical to [the degree offered by] RIT in the United States," said Abdulla. "The academic staff coming from RIT are all senior professors!doctorate level! and are coming to start their courses over here."

According to Kiwan, the RIT campus will grow to between 10,000 and 15,000 students over the next 10 years.

RIT will join three universities currently in operation!but those are only the start of what's being called Academic City. "There will be more than 100 universities in the next 10 to 15 years," Kiwan rosily predicted.

To overcome the high cost of real estate, the DSO will offer engineers subsidized housing, to the tune of 60 percent of the cost. For example, a one-bedroom apartment that costs $28,000 per year to rent would "go down to $12,000," said Kiwan. He expects salaries to range from $24,000 to $100,000 per year, depending on skill sets and qualifications.

Low-cost housing, zero taxes and full repatriation of profits make for an attractive proposition at both the personal and the corporate level. "Tech companies willing to invest in research and development here will find a paradise," said Kiwan. "They'll be treated like kings. I mean it!"

Market focus
If it is to succeed, the DSO must carefully choose the technology areas on which to focus. The emphasis is on IC design, R&D, software development and, later, semiconductor manufacturing. While there's no plan to build its own wafer fab, said Kiwan, the DSO hopes to attract investment from foundries such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd.

Attracting pedigreed companies is difficult, however, when there's no precedent for advanced development. "Decision makers are conservative," said Rich Goldman, VP of corporate marketing and strategic market development at Synopsys Inc. "They need to design right the first time and so are reluctant to be the first goers. There's risk there."

The answer is to get references on past design projects in Dubai, to break what Goldman called the "zero cycle."

Pilot offer
To that end, the DSOA partnered with Synopsys and put together the Dubai Circuit Design (DCD) center, an advanced IC design team plucked from places such as Morocco, Egypt, India and Tunisia, and from companies such as Texas Instruments, STMicroelectronics and Qualcomm. Led by Ramzi Kuhail, manager of design consulting at Synopsys, and with Kiwan as manager, the team has just virtually taped out its first design: an advanced encryption engine called SMC. The device is designed in a low power, 65nm TSMC process with 22 million transistors in an area measuring 3.45mm x 3.45 mm. It runs at 333MHz/100MHz and took four months to develop.

While Kuhail acknowledged that SMC is more of a proof-of-capabilities design than a real-world IC, he said it has served two purposes: "It proved the capabilities of the DCD team, and it helped 'pipe clean' the Pilot design-flow environment."

Pilot is an advanced design flow used internally at Synopsys. According to Kuhail, the Pilot flow had not been proved on relatively complex designs until the SMC project.

"These are proprietary tools no one else has," said Kiwan, who added that the DCD may subcontract its services to Synopsys, a move that would make the EDA vendor its first customer.

For all future customers, the servers at DCD are fully Synopsys compatible, "so teams from around the world can access and update the designs in real time," said Kuhail.

The Pilot program also proves the DCD effort is "not held down by legacy methodologies; it can go to the newer and most innovative" practices, said Goldman of Synopsys.

- Patrick Mannion
EE Times





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