Committed to Memory


The Ottawa Connection to DRAM

Hi, my name is Graham Allan and I am the Product Marketing Manager for DDR PHYs at Synopsys and a co-author of this new Blog about memory.  I happen to live in Ottawa Canada which for many of you is an odd location for anyone that has anything to do with DRAM.  I thought it may be interesting to write about the Ottawa connection to DRAM, a story that most people do not know about.

The Intel 1103 DRAM Die Photo

The saga starts back in the late 1960s when Intel was a young start up developing semiconductor DRAM to replace magnetic core memory. Up in the “Great White North”, Microsystems International Limited (MIL) was a telecommunications microelectronics company based in Ottawa that was also an early semiconductor company.  At the same time that Intel was starting to have great success with design wins for their new 1103 1Kb DRAM (that’s right, a staggering 1024 bits of memory!), their customers were growing more and more uncomfortable with the new single sourced, but promising technology.  Intel was also looking for capital to cover their loses since their inception.  Both problems were solved in 1970 when Intel signed a second source agreement with MIL. MIL would offer a second source to ease Intel’s customer fears and the $1.5 million MIL paid for the license rights doubled Intel’s market value and helped Intel to become profitable in 1971.  It also helped Intel to go public that year.

With Intel’s assistance, MIL began producing 1103 DRAMS in 1971.  MIL was initially doing very well with production, better than Intel was at the time since Intel sent their best team to Canada to help bring up the technology.  However, as part of the licensing deal, Intel only had to support MIL until the end of 1972, after which Intel was free to update the product and process without sharing the details with MIL.  Soon thereafter, Intel transitioned from 2 inch to 3 inch wafers to reduce costs.  MIL tied to follow suit but ultimately failed.

Intel effectively created the perfect second source – one that was visible to the customer for the component selection process but one that could not actually deliver the product economically so Intel received all of the orders!  The rest of the Intel story is well known.

MIL was not so lucky and it was effectively shut down in the mid 1970s after failing to ship in volume for the 4K DRAM generation.  MIL had recruited countless engineers from the UK including Richard (Dick) Foss and Robert (Bob) Harland that co-founded a small consulting company called Mosaid in 1975.  Both founders were natural circuit engineers that could easily envision how MOS circuits worked in their heads, an art long lost to Spice simulations.  Mosaid grew to incorporate many business units including those for circuit simulation, transistor model extraction, DRAM design consulting services, DRAM report services and DRAM testers.  The design consulting services was a business unit that blossomed in the mid 1980s (when I joined the company fresh out of University) and lead to 15 years of DRAM design consulting based in Ottawa.  Over those 15 years, Mosaid grew their DRAM design team and serviced mostly tier 2 DRAM vendors by offering design services for the less essential DRAMs that their internal teams could not service.  That ultimately lead to Mosaid’s expertise in SDRAM because the major DRAM vendors did not initially see it as a mainstream product.  As the success of the business grew, Mosaid hired and trained more and more DRAM designers creating an island of DRAM expertise in Canada’s Capital city.  That expertise eventually dispersed when the technology industry bubble burst in 2001.  Much of that talent remains in Ottawa in various memory related entities.

Mosaid eventually transitioned into an IP business, both the patent kind and the IP product kind.  As a result of all those DRAM designs and many innovations, Mosaid had accumulated a large portfolio of patents in the area of DRAM design.  The remnants of Mosaid is now known as Conversant and they are a patent licensing entity.  In terms of semiconductor IP products, Mosaid recognized the emerging opportunity in DDR memory interface IP in 2004.  It was that product line that was eventually sold off to Synopsys in 2007 and remains the reason why the heart of Synopsys’ DDR interface team is based in Ottawa Canada.

So there you have the abridged version of the story how Ottawa Canada became a hotbed of DRAM and memory expertise.  Pretty cool, eh?

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