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CEO by name, designer at heart: Unleashing the Marvell within

Posted: 16 Mar 2015 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Marvell? CEOs? Sehat Sutardja?

The semiconductor industry is rife with endless questions that essentially boil down to finding out 'How can we make this better?' Regardless of whether the issue points at memory density, processor speed or network efficiency, there seems to always be no limit that could halt any form of progress. And the very least, it is hardly a CEO's job to delve into the nitty-gritty.

How many CEOs in the semiconductor industry today are so possessed with their inner technology questions that they actually spend weekends looking for answers? Given their engineering backgrounds, many CEOs at chip companies can probably be found in the basement tinkering on weekends. Rarely, however, do we encounter an executive who not only discusses his personal obsession with technologies, but also reveals a solution he's found after countless sessions of quiet experimentation, all alone at home.

Meet Sehat Sutardja, CEO of the Marvell Technology Group.

Last month, he disclosed in a keynote at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) his weekend projects: the development of an interconnect technology called MoChi, and the Final-Level Cache (FLC) memories, which he said can substantially reduce the amount of DRAM main memory needed in a system.

Sehat Sutardja

Marvell CEO Sehat Sutardja

In an interview during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Sutardja said, "For the last 30 to 40 years, the computer system architecture has remained the same. The advancements of computers have always depended on the bigger and faster CPU and more memory."

"We are going to fix it for once and all," he said, with Marvell's newly proposed system architecture which uses only a fraction of DRAM and puts DRAM in deep sleep. Marvell plans to launch prototype chips, based on the MoChi interconnect and FLC memories, at the end of this year.

It's probably not inaccurate to describe Sutardja as the ultimate geek, still a hands-on designer despite his lofty position, and an engineer's engineer.

In an era when a CEO in the electronics industry often sees his role as financial engineering in search of a high corporate valuation, Sutardja, who talks like an absent-minded professor about his pet projects, is a breath of fresh air.

This is my hobby

Sutardja, however, made it clear in the interview: "No, developing this [new system architecture] is not my job. My day job is running the company. This was my hobby."

But he acknowledged, "I've been thinking about this for decades: why a computer system has to be designed this way."

Recalling the time, early in his engineering career in the 1990s, when he was working at Integrated Information Technology Inc. (which later became 8x8) designing graphics accelerator chips, Sutardja said, "We got killed on the market" by competitors using bigger DRAM. "Since then, I've always wondered why everything requires so much bigger memory. I've kept the problem in my head."

Obsessing about unresolved technical problems has been a lifelong habit. "I've been that way since I was 12 years old." He started his career as an analogue circuit engineer, so, he said, "I still think about how to build a better ADC. I work on my new ideas at night, sometimes call a professor, and discuss the issue."

How the idea hit him

Over the years, Sutardia kept returning to the idea of a new, less main memory-heavy system. As he explained to Rick Merritt, EE Times, in an interview last month, the idea for developing a kind of virtual main memory hit the Marvell CEO "while staring at a task manager screen on a PC," he said.

The task manager monitors real-time running applications and started processes, while evaluating CPU and network usage.

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