EDA Is Only “Mostly Dead”

Last Wednesday at DVCon, Peggy Aycinena MC’ed what used to be known as the Troublemakers Panel, formerly MC’ed by John Cooley. The topic, “EDA: Dead or Alive?” Well, having attended Aart’s Keynote address immediately preceding and having attended Peggy’s panel discussion, I can answer that question in the immortal words of Miracle Max, “EDA is only MOSTLY dead”. But first, some background.

Back in the mid 90s, I attended a Synopsys field conference where Aart delivered a keynote addressing the challenges of achieving higher and higher productivity in the face of increasing chip size. The solution, he predicted, would be design reuse in the form of intellectual property. Although most of us had only the faintest idea of what design reuse entailed and could barely fathom such a future, Aart’s prediction has indeed come true. Today, there is hardly a chip designed without some form of soft or hard IP and many chips are predominantly IP.

Some years later, he delivered a similar keynote preaching the coming future of embedded software. This was before the term SoC was coined to designate a chip with embedded processors running embedded software. Again, only a handful understood or could fathom this future, but Aart was correct again.

So, this year, immediately preceding Peggy’s Panel, Aart delivered another very entertaining and predictive keynote. After describing the current economic crisis in engineering terms using amplifiers and feedback loops, he moved to the real meat of the presentation which addressed the growing amount of software content in today’s SoCs. He described how project schedules are often paced by embedded software development and validation. How products are increasingly differentiated based on software, not hardware. And he predicted a day when chips would only have custom hardware to implement functions that could not be performed with programmable software. In essence, he described a future with little electronic design as we know it today, where hardware designers are largely replaced by programmers.

Immediately following Aart’s keynote was Peggy’s panel. (If you want to know exactly what occurred, there is no place better to go than Mike Demler’s blow-by-blow account.) Peggy did her best to challenge the EDA execs to defend why EDA would not die out. She kept coming back to that same question in different ways and the execs kept avoiding directly answering the question, choosing instead to offer such philosophical logic such as: “If EDA is dead, then semiconductors are dead. If semiconductors are dead, then electronics are dead. And since electronics will never die, EDA will never die”.

On the surface, logic such as this is certainly comforting. After all, who can imagine a future without electronics? Upon closer inspection, however, and in light of Aart’s keynote, there is plenty reason for skepticism.

Just as Aart was right about design reuse and IP…

Just as Aart was right about embedded software …

I believe that Aart is right about hardware design being replaced by software development.

As processors and co-processors become faster and more capable of handling tasks formerly delegated to hardware…

As time-to-market drives companies to sell products that can be upgraded or fixed later via software patches…

As fewer and fewer companies can afford the cost of chip design at 32nm and below…

More companies will move capabilities to software running on standard chips.

With that, what becomes of the current EDA industry. Will it adapt to embrace software as part of its charter. Or will it continue to focus on chip development.

Personally, I think Aart is right again. Hardware will increasingly become software. And an EDA industry focused on hardware, will be increasingly “mostly dead”.

harry the ASIC guy

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5 Responses to “EDA Is Only “Mostly Dead””

  1. James Colgan says:

    I almost agree Harry 😉
    I imagine that we’ll see an oscillation between s/w and h/w centric system development over the long term. This will be driven by the performance/power/heat-dissipation trade-offs.
    The market will continue to demand greater functionality (software), but it will also drive battery life (power) and be very demanding of the form-factor (heat dissipation) of their devices.
    So I imagine that we’ll see functionality move from software, to hardware, and back to software over the course of system generations.
    System developers do as much as they possibly can with the hardware they’ve got. They make trade-offs and innovate around the limitations of the platform. Then once they’ve reached a point of “exhaustion” they’ll push back on the hardware to deliver more.
    The job of the semiconductor vendor is to anticipate these demand cycles. And this is why it is imperative for EDA to push further into system level design – provide the tools that a) enable the trade-offs to be made through simulation, and b) automate as much as possible the design, verification, and delivery of the ultimate system…regardless of where the partitions reside.

  2. Mike Demler says:

    Great post. and thanks for the plug! My perspective is, as always, a bit (ironic pun intended) different. Software is the ‘next’ big thing? I disagree. Yes, it’s an area in need of better integration into SoC design flows, but that’s still only a small part of the overall EDA landscape. Look at
    my favorite topic – how analog meets digital in design and verification. That is huge, and affects more than just SoCs. There is more analog content and more analog behavior (e.g. power management, leakage, variability,etc.) to account for than ever. But Synopsys has digital DNA, and the analog-digital schism is more difficult for anyone in EDA to wrap their brains around.

  3. Great writeup. I think the key point is not that hardware or EDA is dead, but that the relative importance of software as a semiconductor deliverable is growing, and is set to keep growing. Both HW and SW are needed for differentiated semiconductor products. Technologies like system prototypes, combining virtual & rapid prototypes with HW & SW IP, will play an increasingly important role in bringing HW+SW semiconductor products to market faster and more economically.

  4. Nice post. I very much agree with the aspects on the importance of software. In exchange there are huge opportunities for EDA and Embedded software. Case in point, probably for the first time there is now an EDA track at the Embedded Systems Conference in late March in San Jose. It is called “Improve Productivity at the HW/SW Interface”, see https://www.cmpevents.com/ESCw09/a.asp?option=C&V=1&SB=5 for the tracks.

    BTW, as I am the track chair I can get interested engineers 25% off the full conference. Just use promo code CTEDA15 to get the discount when registering for ESC.

    Back on point, there also will be a panel on the topic called “Who’s Taking over Whom – Is EDA moving into Embedded or Embedded into EDA?” on Wednesday, April 1st from 3:00pm – 4:00pm in the ESC Theatre.

  5. Harry, you cannot be more right. I’ve always been very against fine-graining and channelising EDA for semiconductors alone. EDA besides being the simplest means to product development, is also innately broad-spectrum for any industry involving automation of any kind. Global recession or not, EDA would then inevitably assert its stance as a very living entity, had we to understand its genome and its birth in the very first place!

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