Real Men Don’t Need Fabs: Part 2 of Our Interview with Marvell CEO Sehat Sutardja

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this thing worked at one-quarter the power: they said there must be something wrong with it. There was a lot of FUD [industry lingo for “fear, uncertainty, and doubt”]. We had to go through every single step to prove it. It took us a year to convince people. But eventually, we convinced them, and for the first few years, Cisco’s gigabit Ethernet used our silicon.

X: Marvell committed very early to the ARM (Advanced RISC Machine) architecture. Why?

SS: I got exposed to RISC architecture when I was at Berkeley, doing my analog studies. We used machines from Sun Microsystems, which later on switched to Sun SPARC, which was RISC-based. Then IBM introduced PowerPC, and there were various MIPS processors in the market, and of course you have the x86 800-pound gorilla, which I was exposed to when I was working on building an x86 clone for a video digital signal processing company. So I knew about the strengths and weaknesses of all the different architectures. Years later, when I was starting Marvell, we were building peripherals and interface circuits and mixed-signal DSP chips, and we knew that over time these were just going to be parts of bigger chips. That’s what Moore’s Law says; the things you are building on one chip now, in a few years are going to be a quarter of a chip. So what is the something else that you put on there? It’s a processor. A processor was going to be something that you would need to build a system on a chip, for when you want to personalize the chip and write code and applications and software for it.

So, when you looked at the processors we needed, outside of x86 there was no consensus on what would be the next common architecture. NEC had their own architecture. Toshiba, Mitsubishi, Hitachi, it was a big mess. The whole industry was so fragmented. The only things that were not fragmented were MIPS and ARM. Everything else was proprietary and fragmented, and there was no way they were going to be successful in the long run. It would be harder and harder to find engineers familiar with those processors. So we said, if we can standardize onto one architecture, there will be more engineers.

So I started looking into this, and I said, “Well, it’s either MIPS or ARM.” At the time, MIPS was focusing on very high performance, workstation-class products, and ARM was focusing on dirt-cheap phones with tiny cores. We looked at the giant core on MIPS processors and said, we cannot afford this. We need this tiny core, but we want performance like the big core. Maybe not equal to it, but maybe 70 percent of the performance. So we said, let’s just pick the ARM architecture. Fundamentally, there was no reason why an ARM processor could not run faster. We just needed to have an architecture license to build a faster one, if we needed. That’s how we started. We could have gone the other way around, and taken a big MIPS core and made it smaller, but ARM made more sense.

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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