Inphi Moves Beyond InP

Chip maker Inphi Corp. has recruited a Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU) executive to help shift the company beyond its indium phosphide specialty and into more mainstream semiconductor design.

Ashok Dhawan, former president of Lucent's Broadband Access Group, was named Inphi's chief executive last week and was announced to the public yesterday. Inphi's founder and former CEO, Loi Nguyen, remains with the company as vice president of technology.

Dhawan was brought in for his business experience, to move Inphi's heady technology "into more immediate markets," he says.

Inphi emerged among a cluster of competitors hoping to use indium phosphide (InP) to build electronics and optics for OC768. Like silicon germanium (SiGe) or gallium arsenide (GaAs), InP provides higher performance than ordinary silicon, but it's also more expensive, and the resulting devices consume more power.

Competing InP specialists include Gtran Inc., Hitachi spinoff OpNext Inc., TRW unit Velocium, and Xindium Technologies Inc. Some have fallen back on wireless markets as core optics has fizzled -- GTran even split itself in two, creating sister company GTran Wireless -- but none appears to have given up the OC-768 chase (see Gtran Adds to Chip Suite, OpNext Intros ICs, Velocium Debuts 10-Gig, 40-Gig Gizmos and Xindium Comes Out). But there's no question InP has lost some of its luster.

"I would say InP is on the bubble, trying to find applications in high-speed areas," says Fred Zieber, president of consulting firm Pathfinder Research Inc. Wireless handsets offer a possibility, with their need for devices such as power amplifiers, but the cost of InP becomes an issue, as does its manufacturing yield: "InP is brittle, so you have some handling problems."

Inphi has already shifted its emphasis to 10-Gbit/s parts, but it's undergoing a more serious change, turning its eye toward development of SiGe and even plain silicon devices built with CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) process technology. Dhawan says that's not a stretch, because Inphi's expertise is not in InP processing -- in fact, the company's manufacturing is outsourced. Its main business is chip design.

"What the company can do is high-speed analog and mixed-signal [a combination of analog and digital] design," Dhawan said. "We're not going to be limited to InP."

Those aren't empty claims. Plenty of designers have expertise in digital CMOS, but analog design is a scarce talent, because it relies heavily on gut-feel tweaking and rearranging of circuits. "It's all secret sauce, especially at high speed," Zieber says.

And despite the current bleak outlook, Dhawan maintains that a surge of demand is just around the corner, driven by the broadband technology that's so dear to his heart. He ran Ascend's DSL operations, and after Lucent acquired the company, he became head of the $1.5 billion business unit that included his old DSL crew.

"I've seen it with France Telecom SA, Qwest Communications International Inc., Korea Telecom -- I saw how fast the needs grow as the broadband traffic comes in," Dhawan says. "I don't think we're far from the bandwidth requirements hitting us in a big way."

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

lightmaster 12/4/2012 | 9:19:06 PM
re: Inphi Moves Beyond InP So what's happening to Infinera, another company with a strategy based on using InP for long haul applications? They've got a LOT of money and a pretty high powered management team, but have been operating totally under the radar. Do they still have a market?
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