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Startup Cswitch battles IC downturn

Posted: 29 Apr 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:FPGA? startup chip? downturn semiconductor?

After making a big splash in 2006, configurable chip startup Cswitch Corp. is going through rough waters amid the IC downturn.

Cswitch quietly implemented a layoff in Q4 08 and is possibly seeking some new funding. Like many startups!and established chipmakers!Cswitch hopes to weather the current economic storm as it attempts to ramp up its initial product line.

The company is one of several and promising FPGA-like startups to appear in recent times. Many of the FPGA startups are struggling in the recession. For example, not much has been heard from M2000. In fact, the company changed its name to Abound Logic last October.

Some FPGA-like startup vendors could ultimately go under, such as Ambric, MathStar and countless others. Still some could get acquired by bigger players!or Cisco Systems Inc.

The problem with Cswitch is that the startup is fielding a high-end, FPGA-like architecture at a time when communications and other OEMS have either delayed or scrapped many of their projects.

Observers wonder if Cswitch will survive over the long term. Doug Laird, president and CEO of the company, insisted the startup is moving full speed ahead with its strategy despite reports the firm is in deep trouble. "We're not closing," Laird told EE Times. "We're battening down the hatches."

"Cswitch is definitely still in business," added Bill Tai, a board member and a venture capitalist with Charles River Ventures, in an e-mail. "It's an ongoing entity."

Cswitch, a privately-held company, was founded in late 2003 by former executives of Transmeta, SGI and others. In 2006, Cswitch announced the completion of its second round of funding. The round was led by GF Private Equity and Harris & Harris. It included existing investors ATA Ventures, Charles River Ventures and Bay Partners. Masters Capital, Mitsubishi UFJ Capital and Micron Ventures also participated in the investment.

Narrowing the performance and density gap between FPGAs and structured ASICs, a novel configurable array architecture was unveiled by the startup in 2006. Combining a 2GHz, on-chip interconnect network!and an array of 1GHz configurable packet engines!Cswitch's so-called CS90 Configurable Switch Array claims to deliver scalable datapath processing at bandwidths unattainable by FPGA and network processor architectures. The device is based on a 90nm process from Singaporean foundry partner Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing Pte Ltd.

Despite announcing the device architecture in 2006, Cswitch did not ship the product until mid-2008. "We're shipping," Laird said. "We have multiple people" looking or buying the device.

Caught in the storm
But then, as it began to ramp up the device, the bottom fell out of the market. The current downturn raised its ugly head late last year, causing demand to drop for the entire semiconductor industry.

Cswitch was caught in the storm. The company was forced to cut an undisclosed number of staff. "We did a layoff last year" in the fourth quarter," he said, "but we did not kill the company."

Now, like the rest of the industry, the company waiting for the business to recover and is looking for customers to resume their buying patterns. To weather the storm, the company is looking at a "second allotment" in funding. "We have money in the bank," he said. "We're also entertaining multiple options."

The CEO is still convinced the market is ripe for the company's technology, because "people want more bandwidth." The startup also believes it is not pushing a "me-too" FPGA technology, thereby avoiding head-to-head competition against Actel, Altera, Lattice and Xilinx.

"We're in our own little space," he said. "I purposely avoid competing with" the likes of Altera, Xilinx and others.

In some respects, Cswitch's product resembles a network processor, as compared to common FPGA. The CS90 family is based upon Cswitch's Configurable Switch Array (CSA) architecture. It is said to offer ASIC performance with FPGA flexibility by embedding configurable functions that are tailored to support any packet-based application.

The family offers in excess of 9 million usable gates, complemented by up to 40 serial transceivers operating at 6.4Gbit/s. Cswitch's CSA architecture includes configurable embedded blocks operating at up to 1GHz, supporting common data plane functions such as header parsing and CRC generation.

"The heterogeneous Configurable Switch Array architecture used by the CS90 family offers designers all the building blocks necessary to build 20- to 100Gbit/s datapath applications in a single device," said Laird during the formal product launch in 2008. "Furthermore, because the architecture utilizes embedded blocks, timing closure effort is significantly reduced."

Going forward, the company is exploring the development of devices, based on 65- and 40nm technologies. But it is also seeking to deliver on its promises with the existing CS90 product. "I wish I was further along," he said. "I am three-fourths through the chasm, but not 100 percent there."

He was making references to "Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers," a high-tech marketing book by Geoffrey A. Moore. The book deals with a set of management challenges posed by fast-changing markets.

The question is whether Cswitch falls into the chasm or actually changes the rules in the FPGA game.

- Mark LaPedus
EE Times





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