Crosstalk: An Interview with iTerra's Peter Walters

Feb. 13, 2007
Peter Walters is president and CEO of iTerra Communications (Palo Alto, CA). iTerra designs die, packaged components, and multi-chip modules (MCMs) that give customers strategic system performance advantages. The company specializes in ...

Peter Walters is president and CEO of iTerra Communications (Palo Alto, CA). iTerra designs die, packaged components, and multi-chip modules (MCMs) that give customers strategic system performance advantages. The company specializes in semiconductor-based products such as narrowband and broadband MMIC amplifiers, low-noise MMICs and discrete FETs, buffer and variable-gain amplifiers, modulator amplifier drivers, NRZto-RZ converters and duobinary encoders, integrated electro-optical components, and high-speed digital components. Before founding iTerra in 2000, he held various senior positions at Hewlett-Packard Co., Rockwell, and Philips, all within the compound semiconductor industry.

MRF: Two years ago, you told us about iTerra, its products, and technologies. What has happened since then?
Walters: We're continuing our focus in the telecommunications transport infrastructure markets in the 10-Gb/s physical layers. What's interesting is that there is renewed activity now at 40 Gb/s, where we originally started. This technology is also well positioned for broadband microwave and millimeter-wave markets and high-speed digital needs typically in test and measurement and defense applications. The other interesting change in iTerra is that it now has developed outsourcing partners to be able to provide a turn-key component solution that is cost-effective. It's part of iTerra's overall strategy to be "asset light" and focused on core value-added IP for the end customer.

MRF: You founded iTerra at the beginning of the downturn in wireless and lightwave markets. How did the company manage to weather these times and emerge unscathed?
Walters: The customers and markets that we are committed to are long-term. It takes significant time and effort to develop next-generation products, meet a very challenging Telcordia qualification, and have a close working relationship with the end customer. The customer then has to do their qualification. Typical product life cycles can be as long as 10 years in some cases. We have structured the company to be successful in the long term through good product-development planning and sound financial management.

MRF: Specifically, what did the company do to position itself during this time?
First of all, one of iTerra's greatest strengths is designing products that meet the demanding and unusual requirements of specific customers. Many times it requires the use of digital and microwave technologies, often in combination. The expertise required to do this is not very common in the marketplace. We spend a lot of time with our customers' design engineers to establish a relationship that goes beyond the typical vendor-client scenario. We also looked for sockets in which we could provide a design and technology advantage. For example, we knew there was a customer benefit in combining an optical modulator driver amplifier with high-speed digital components such as encoders, required right before the driver.

MRF: How is the health of the lightwave market, which was one of the most severely impacted by the market downturn?
Walters: The lightwave market is coming back in what I would call an intelligent manner. That is, people are addressing the need for greater data rates and capacity at 10 Gb/s and 40 Gb/s in terms of their cost/benefit ratio. Massive increases are occurring in data traffic driven by applications such as video streaming. We're addressing these needs now, in terms of not just raw performance but high levels of integration, within the cost constraints of the market. Our most popular components are also Telcordia qualified, which is essential in order to serve the telecom market.

MRF: How about the market for microwave devices?
Walters: I think the microwave market is quite robust, especially in areas of interest to iTerra. The high-frequency instrument market is growing, and there are many defense electronics systems being created for airborne, land, and ship-borne platforms. The viability of UAVs has created an entirely new application platform as well. The war on terrorism requires more and more information, which is often obtained by looking at very broad areas of spectrum. All of these applications are an excellent fit for our broadband MMIC amplifiers.

MRF: Most microwave semiconductor manufacturers focus on making devices to serve the narrow bandwidths occupied by wireless services. Why don't you follow this model as well?
I think you just stated it: Most companies have been thrashing about in the high-volume, low-margin sectors. This was never our intent. Instead, we look for high-margin applications that require devices with very broad bandwidths such as DC to 26.5 GHz. Granted, it's not as massive a marketplace, but it is still quite large, and demands high gain, high output power, and often low noise and low power consumption with a very flat response curve. In some applications, nothing else will do. Broadband instruments, military electronic warfare and electronic countermeasures, and many other types of systems need this type of performance.

MRF: How do you address opportunities that require different semiconductor and fabrication technologies?
The trick is to match the right technology maturity point with the customer's product maturity point to be cost-effective while still delivering the required performance advantage. We have developed relationships with foundries that encompass a wide array of technologies. We currently work with six foundries that have core competencies in GaAs, SiGe, InP, and BiCMOS. Our design team has experience in each one, so we have the flexibility to address applications with the technologies best suited for them. We also work with several packaging organizations that have expertise in plastic and metal-ceramic technologies.

MRF: The RoHS initiative has been a thorn in the side of nearly every semiconductor company. How is iTerra addressing the lead-free need?
Walters: Like everyone else, we saw RoHS coming and knew we needed to address it. We have modified many of our components to be RoHS-6-compliant, and we're rapidly moving toward compliance for our entire product line. But there are markets for non-RoHS-complaint packaged parts, and we'll offer this option as well.

MRF: What devices has iTerra introduced that you feel give you the edge you earlier referred to?
Walters: Our 9.9-to-12.5 Gb/s iT6155 NRZ modulator driver continues to gain market acceptance. It's designed to drive long-haul optical transponders and consists of two wideband iTerra pHEMT amplifiers in a compact package. Key target customers are manufacturers of 300-pin MSA transponders, whose shipment volumes continue to grow at a rapid pace. We have also introduced two highly-integrated products for long-haul lightwave applications with different modulation schemes. The iT6134 generates an RZ format from an NRZ data stream and clock signal and has peak-to-peak jitter of less than 10 ps. The iT6144 combines an encoder and driver, converts an electrical 10-Gb/s NRZ signal into an equivalent duobinary signal, and then amplifies it to drive a "filtered" LiNbO3 modulator. We purposely created the iT6134 and iT6144 to use the same SMT package so that manufacturers can cost-effectively use the same board with minimal modifications for both coding schemes.

For microwave applications, we just introduced two high-power amplifiers—the iT2018 and iT2028. The iT2018 operates from 5 to 18 GHz and delivers greater than 1.5 W at 18 GHz with small-signal gain of 18 dB. The iT2028 has flat gain response from 5 to 20 GHz with more than +30 dBm output power across the band and as high as +33 dBm at 1-dB compression.

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