Fast and Furious: Bringing Up Tegra 4i in 22 Days

by Joshua Wise

Back in February, I sat anxiously with more than 200 colleagues as the Super Bowl played on the big screen in NVIDIA’s cafeteria. It wasn’t the game we had gathered for, and it wasn’t what had us on edge.

Instead, that Sunday we were awaiting the arrival of some amazing new silicon chips from Taiwan to SFO, as San Francisco’s airport is universally known. With their touchdown, our 22-day race to bring an incredible mobile processor to life in time for Mobile World Congress (MWC) on Feb. 25 would begin.

Grey’s Anatomy

Behind every great microprocessor is a great team. Most people, however, don’t realize just how big that team is, how many months of exhaustive planning is involved, or how much meticulous effort is put into changing a piece of silicon into a working product.

Tegra 4i bringup
The Super Bowl was no match for our attention.

Even before our manufacturing partners at TSMC produced those first chips, hundreds of NVIDIA hardware and software engineers had been hard at work designing the Tegra 4i (code-named “Grey”) – our first integrated mobile processor.

The stakes were high: this would be our first product with a built-in modem. Not just any modem, either. The programmable “soft modem” technology we acquired with the purchase of Icera, back in mid-2011, promises to bring next-gen wireless networking into the mainstream smartphone market.

In an industry where integrating newly acquired hardware and software could take years, we had built Icera technology into Tegra in just 20 months, with Tegra 4i.

Tegra 4i bringup
Every clock cycle mattered.

The Bringup

Modern semiconductor manufacturing isn’t a job you can outsource to a far-off factory and forget about. It doesn’t run smoothly by chance, but by many engineer-years of planning. It’s a tightly choreographed operation involving hundreds of engineers who not only do the upfront designs of a new part, but who painstakingly turn these designs into a working product once the part arrives from the manufacturer. We call this process the “bringup.”

Like scores of my colleagues, I was prepared to give up sleep, free time and weekends to turn Tegra 4i into a product we could unveil at MWC. We’d challenged ourselves to tackle this effort – which typically lasts many months – in just over three weeks. Our priorities were clear: once the first parts showed up in the lab, we abandoned the big game for the power-on.

The bringup was a huge undertaking. For Tegra 4i, we flew more than 120 of our engineers from all over the world to our Santa Clara headquarters. Each had a list of tasks to execute to prove that our new Tegra chip would work perfectly. Every feature was tested. Every component was stressed to its absolute limits to make sure no matter what you want to do with your Tegra, it would work as specified.

We not only pulled in the bringup schedule, but set goals for better performance. If we did our jobs well, we could save precious days, showing off everyone’s work to the world earlier than we’d planned. Often, we found that we could beat our early estimates for how fast we could make Tegra run. So, when we finally had the first hardware, we worked to squeeze every last drop of power out of our design.

Tegra 4i bringup
Bringup was a collaborative effort.

Coming Into Focus

Back in the lab that first evening, the excitement was palpable. More and more of the chip was coming alive. The displays were showing within an hour; the system memory team worked hard to tune settings for stability; and the touchscreen responded to input.

A few hours later, Linux – the core system underlying Android – booted for the first time. The next morning, Android was running. A few hours after that, our very first integrated software modem sent a text message to our CEO. Operating in shifts nearly 24 hours a day, we were turning around weeks of work in just hours.

The dream of having Tegra 4i in time for MWC was starting to come into focus, but there was still plenty more to do. Our system engineering team worked around the clock with our manufacturing team to build enough “Phoenix” reference phones to show off the functioning processor. The software team spent day after day enabling new features. And the hardware team continued their work to tune everything to work the best it could.

Tegra 4i bringup
Engineers worked around the clock to ready phones.

The culmination of all this work was a product that we’re extremely proud of.  Our design team does an incredible job of creating products long before we begin manufacturing them. With the Tegra 4i,  we showed that our bringup team is one of the best in the industry.

When MWC started, we were ready – not with a model phone in a sealed box looping a video, but with a genuine article that the public and the press could touch. An amazing 22 days after the first plane landed in San Francisco, we showed the world what we’d built.