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First-Hand:Cryo CMOS and 40+ layer PC Boards - How Crazy is this?

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How it started

It was in the early 80's.  Control Data (CDC) had just launched the CYBER - 205 with modest success and the team was now focused on the next generation machine, the 2XX as I recall.  Speed, cost and meeting the schedule were all key objectives.  Speed because Cray Research under the guidance of Seymour Cray was setting  milestones for Supercomputers with the Cray 1 and then the Cray 2.  Cost, since Supercomputers were extremely expensive.  Schedules since the CYBER - 205 had established patience records as a machine that may never get out the door and this must not be repeated.

A conventional evolutionary approach for Integrated Circuit (IC) logic was initially selected.  Motorola, with some prodding, agreed to launch an 8,000 gate equivalent ECL (emitter-coupled-logic - the circuitry of choice for high performance processing units) provided that Control Data do the actual circuit development.  There were insufficient customers for Motorola to commit their resources to this lofty development.  Motorola did, however, commit their advanced ECL processes to CDC and a joint team was formed with the two companies.  

Logic designers at the CDC Advanced Design Laboratory were given preliminary design rules based on computer device  models and estimates of gate per chip densities.  There was a natural follow up of grumbling by the logic design team led by very experienced and innovative folks (Ray Kort, Maurice Hudson and Dave Hill to name three)  but circuit designers had learned to accept this since logic designers always found the circuits to be too slow and insufficient an quantity of gates and pins (I/O ports) per die. There was a lot of cooperation too.  Basic building blocks were defined by the logic designers - gate functionality, register functionality, etc. From this set of preliminary rules  function blocks were defined and capacity per reasonably-sized Printed Circuit (PC) boards defined. The initial design using the Cray CYBER - 205 based architecture was launched.


In parallel with this effort, and in the same design group; i.e.; circuit, packaging, PC board and newly formed CAD (tools for layout and design of chips and boards) -  chief chip design engineer - Randy Bach - was assigned to develop an advanced CMOS chip for the Canadian Computer Development organization.  At this time, early 80's CMOS was in it's infancy being used for memory devices, low performance peripherals and also for low performance microprocessors (5 to 10 MHz clock speeds).  The design contained 5,000 gates plus appropriate input and output communication devices.  Gate arrays for CMOS was also nearly non-existent so Randy and his small team of two assistants developed a cell library and worked closely with the Canadian Development team to meet their objectives as well.  

This effort was completely separate from the ECL based gate array to be used for the next generation Supercomputer.  The product was developed for a low cost application.


It was customary for Neil Lincoln - chief architect, Dale Handy - manufacturing manager and me to go off to lunch every 8 to 10 days to discuss status at either Author Treacher's Fish & Chips or Zantigo's (high class - NOT - fast food restaurants).  As a side note, both of these fast food places disappeared during the ETA Systems brief duration.    Zantigo's has returned (I think because they know it is safe now that the three of us cannot visit together any longer - Neil unfortunately passed on a few years ago).

At one of these meetings, Neil had "news" for me.  Simply stated, the gate array in co-development with Motorola had unacceptable goals.  The chip had too few I/O pins, consumed too much power and insufficient gates. He had determined that the CPU (some 3 Million gates) had to be assembled on a single board.  "It was time for this to be done".  He also reached the conclusion that the logic design required at least 15,000 gates per chip to meet these goals.  

The logic designers had gotten to him I surmised. Schedules, Neil reminded us, could not be altered - and that was that.  To soften the blow he bought lunch that day, three Cokes and three orders of fish and chips - Neil's was a large order.

The trip back to the lab was pretty quiet, fortunately short since our eating places were all very close to the lab.


that afternoon, I assembled the key folks - I might miss one or two but Randy Bach, Doug Carlson, Dave Resnick and John Ketzler were four that I recall now.  Doug was a mechanical engineer that I assigned the Motorola project to because of his management skills - something he probably never forgave me for - John was the key circuit engineer on the Motorola project and Dave was and still is a very versatile and perceptive engineer.  

Doug and I would inform Motorola of the decision not to continue.  The team would package up what was accomplished and turn it over to Motorola to carry the ball forward if they wished.  As a side note, Motorola and Cray did continue the design.  It was the circuit design used in the Cray C90, a very successful computer.

The meeting turned to what were the next steps.

The key challenges that emerged were: 

  • IC Technology that could meet the new lofty goals
  • The PC board technology required to meet a single board CPU
  • Packaging and interconnect technology required to support the two above requirements
  • Computer Aided Design (CAD) technology necessary to accurately design IC and PCB technologies
  • Suppliers for all - do they exist?
  • What additional internal resources were required to achieve objectives
  • System packaging beyond a single CPU. (Memory, peripherals, I/O, etc.)
  • Testing of complex IC technology and complex PCB technology


Summary of IC technology accomplishments