Archive for October, 2009

Honey, I Tattoo’ed The Kids

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

gid-it Glow In the Dark Skin Stickers I may be the engineer in the family, but my wife is the inventor.

Being an engineer is easy. You go to school to learn well established laws and methods. When you get a job, there are others who can mentor you and show you the ropes. If you need to know more, there are training classes to take. Someone else, usually marketing, decides what needs to be to be designed. All you have to do is follow the rules.

Being an inventor is hard. There is no school for inventing, nobody to teach you the ropes, and no classes to tell you how to do things. You come up with your own idea that has never been done before. You learn on the fly what you need to know from a variety of domains you know nothing about. You build it yourself. There is no such thing as first pass success. Experimentation and refinement are a constant process.

For those of you who know Joyce and have been privileged to receive one of her hand-made personalized holiday “greetings”, you know that she is one of the most creative and gifted people you could ever meet. I’ve had people tell me that they look forward to the holidays just to find out what she is going to send. Most Novembers, our garage looks like a scene out of Honey I Shrunk The Kids as Joyce invents a new holiday greeting. Each of these inventions takes countless hours of brainstorming, planning, experimenting, assembling, and tweaking to get it “just right”.

There was the mobile of our kids made with clear fishing line tied off. The fishing line, being so slick, would always untie until Joyce figured out to add a drop of glue to the end to keep it in place. Problem solved.

A few years ago Joyce made a lantern with pictures of our children on the outside. It took a lot of research and experimentation to make sure the cardboard comprising the lantern was sufficiently coated so as not to catch fire but still provide a cozy glow. Good to go.

And probably the most interesting of all, there was the snow globe which contained an acrylic encased photo of our daughter Kiara reaching for the stars. I remember Joyce’s frustration trying to pry the small Lucite blocks from their molds until she realized that sticking them in cold water would loosen the blocks from the molds due to the CTE mismatch between the materials. Then, these Lucite blocks were placed in baby food jars that had to have just the right mixture of water and propylene glycol to be viscous and not grow algae. Perfect.

About a year and a half ago, we were visiting Legoland in Carlsbad, CA. My kids (then 4 and 6), especially my son, have a gift for getting “sidetracked”. So, Joyce thought it would be a good idea for our kids to have our cell phone numbers conspicuously on them in case they got lost. That way, it would not depend on their memory of our cell numbers for us to be contacted by a helpful stranger if they wandered away. That’s when the idea for the “WhoTat” was born.

WhoTats

Joyce decided to start a business called Aware Gear that would provide safety products for young children. The first product was the WhoTat which is a temporary tattoo that is personalized with a phone number to call in case of emergency. Kids like to wear them and parents know that their kids don’t need to remember their phone numbers. Now, I’ll admit that I was personally dubious that this was needed. After all, how hard is it for a kid to remember a phone number? The problem is that most of us have several phone numbers (home, work, cell) and a scared lost child of any age can get confused and even mix the phone numbers together. That’s what my son did, mix the numbers together.

As with the other holiday greetings, this was an invention of its own. At first it seemed easy. Just buy these tattoo sheets that could be fed into a printer, design some neat tattoos, add the phone number, and print. But it wasn’t so easy. First there were moisture issues where the printing process wouldn’t work on humid days or the ink wouldn’t stick. Then the Tats were kind of sticky, so baby powder was used to remove the stickiness, but not too much so as to blur the image. It was probably 6 months before she got the process down to something that would repeatably produce a high quality product.

The second offering was a skin sticker where you could write in your own phone number or message on the fly. Again, material problems. Most recently, she is producing glow-in-the-dark skin stickers called gid-its. With Halloween coming up, and all the inherent dangers of visiting strangers while trick-or-treating, this should help kids stay safe. Once again, this has proven to be a real lesson in materials science, specifically how to get paint with glow-in-the-dark powder to adhere evenly to a non- porous acrylic surface. Who knew? Oh, and 2 days ago she told me about another invention idea and I already see the beginnings of prototypes around the house.

Since Halloween is coming around and child safety is a big concern for a lot of parents, I’d like to ask a favor … ummm … I mean offer you an opportunity. Actually, 3 opportunities.

First, as I mentioned, my wife is a creative genius and you have the opportunity to acquire some of there original work. Her products really do help to keep kids safe and are fun and you have the opportunity to get them for your kids. If you don’t have young kids, tell a friend who does. You can order them here. An if you use the checkout code ASICGUY10 you will get a 10% discount.

Second, you have an opportunity to support a good organization. In addition to the 10% discount mentioned above, Joyce will donate 10% directly to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The NCMEC acts as an information clearinghouse and resource for parents, children, law enforcement agencies, schools, and communities to assist in locating missing children and to raise public awareness about ways to prevent child abduction, child sexual abuse and child pornography. John Walsh, Noreen Gosch, and others advocated establishing the center as a result of frustration stemming from a lack of resources and coordination between law enforcement and other government agencies.

Lastly, if you have gotten some value out of reading this blog over time, then here is your chance to thank me. I’d really appreciate it.

harry the ASIC guy

Synopsys Synphony Synopsis

Monday, October 12th, 2009

sheet_music.jpgI was contacted a few weeks ago by Synopsys’ PR agency to see if I’d be interested in covering an upcoming product announcement. I usually ignore these “opportunities” since the information provided is usually carefully wordsmithed marketing gobbledygook and not enough for me to really form an opinion. However, it turned out that this announcement was on a subject I know a little bit about, so I took them up on their offer.

The announcement was “embargoed“, that is, I was not to make it public until today. Embargoes are a vestige of the days when traditional journalism ruled the roost and when PR departments thought they could control the timing of their message. I don’t think embargoes benefit companies anymore since news is reported at light speed (literally) and people will write what they want when they want. Still, I consider it a sort of gentleman’s agreement so I’m not writing about it until today.

I also waited a little bit until the “mainstream press” wrote their articles. That let’s me point you to the best of them and conserve the space here for my own views, rather that regurgitating the press release and nuts and bolts.

(Update: Here is a very good description of the Synphony flow from Ron Wilson).

Today, Synopsys announced a new product called Synphony High Level Synthesis. You can read about this here. Basically, Synopsys is introducing a high level synthesis (aka behavioral synthesis) product that takes as its input Matlab M-Code and produces RTL Code, a cycle accurate C-model, and a testbench for simulation. Since I have not used the tool, I cannot comment on the capabilities or the quality of results or compare it to other tools on the market. However, I have had some past experience with tools like Matlab (specifically SPW) and Synphony (specifically Behavioral Compiler). So, here are my thoughts, observations, opinions that come to mind.

  1. Synopsys, once the leader in behavioral synthesis, is now the follower - When Synopsys introduced Behavioral Compiler over a decade ago they were the first to preach the gospel of high-level synthesis and all the associated benefits. Architectural optimization. Faster simulation. Bridging the gap between system design and ASIC design. Smaller and easier to understand code. Dogs and cats living together. The promises never fully materialized and Synopsys seemingly moved out of the market. Meanwhile, Mentor introduced Catapult C, Cadence introduced C-to-Silicon, and several others including Forte, Agility, Bluespec, Synfora, ChipVision, and AutoESL introduced their own high-level synthesis tools. Now, after acquiring Synplify DSP through Synplicity, Synopsys is finally re-entering the market (at least for ASIC design) with Synphony. The hunted have become the hunters.
  2. Synphony takes M-code from Matlab as its only source - Whereas most (but not all) other high-level synthesis tools input C like languages, Synopsys has chosen to input M-code only, at least for now. According to Chris Eddington, who is Director of Product Marketing for System-Level Products at Synopsys (according to his LinkedIn profile), approximately 60% of those who say they do “high-level design” are using M-code or some form of C (ANSI C, C++, System-C) for some portion of their design activities. Of those, slightly more use the C variants than M-code, which means that somewhere close to 25% of all ASIC designers could be a possible market for this tool.
  3. Synopsys can try to leverage the Matlab installed base - As mentioned above, Synopsys estimates that 25% of high-level designers could use the Synphony tool which is a pretty big market. By targeting mainly algorithmic design, not control logic, Synopsys can try to serve the Matlab installed base with a more narrowly targeted offering which should make it easier to support. It also allows Synopsys to avoid a bloody battle over C dominance and to pursue a blue ocean strategy with Matlab’s installed base. Interestingly though, there is no partnership with MathWorks implied by this announcement.
  4. Synphony leverages existing IP libraries - Libraries already exist for many common functions that were available for the Synplify DSP tool. The library elements are available as well for Synphony, allowing the designer to specify his functionality using this library or using M-code as the source.
  5. An FPGA tool is being adapted for ASIC - This is probably one of the first times that a tool initially developed for FPGAs (Synplify DSP) is being adapted for ASICs. It’s usually the other way around (e.g. FPGA Compiler grew out of Design Compiler). It should be interesting to see if the FPGA tool can “cut-it” in the ASIC world.
  6. Ties to implementation are seemingly tenuous - A tool that can take M-code as its input and produce RTL and C and do all the other things is all fine and good. But for Synphony to become more than an experimentation tool, it has to produce results (speed, area, power) as good or better than hand-coded RTL. However, the ties to the implementation tool (Design Compiler) are not as direct as even Behavioral Compiler was a decade ago. It seems that Synphony takes an approach where it pre-compiles and estimates timing for various blocks (kind of like building DesignWare libraries), but it assembles the design outside of DesignCompiler without all the associated timing views and engines necessary for true design and timing closure. It’s hard to understand how this can reliably produce results that consistently meet timing, but perhaps there is something that I am not aware of?
  7. Focus on “algorithmic design”, not control - As mentioned above, Synopsys is going after the folks using Matlab. And those designers are developing algorithms, not state machines. In essence, Synphony can focus on the fairly straightforward problem of scheduling mathematical operations to hit throughput and latency goals and not deal with more complex control logic. Much simpler.
  8. Conversion from Floating Point to Fixed Point - Anyone who has designed a filter or any DSP function knows that the devil is in the details, specifically the details of fixed point bit width. One choice of bit width affects downstream choices. You have to decide whether to round or truncate and these decisions can introduce unexpected artifacts into your signal. Synphony converts the floating point Matlab model into a fixed point implementation. Supposedly, it then allows you to easily fiddle with the bit widths to tweak the performance. Some earlier Synopsys products did this (Cossap, System Studio) and it’s a nice feature that can save time. We’ll see how useful it really is over time.
  9. Synphony produces real RTL, as well as C-code and a testbench - One of the drawbacks of Behavioral Compiler is that it never produced a human readable form of RTL code. This made it hard to simulate and debug the RTL. Synphony supplies readable RTL (or so I am told) as well as cycle accurate C-code for system simulation and a testbench for block simulation. This should help facilitate full chip simulations for chip integration, since Synphony will probably only be used on blocks, not entire chips.
  10. Couldn’t Synopsys come up with a better reference than Toyon Research Corporation - No offense to Toyon, but they are hardly a household name. It makes me wonder how many partners Synopsys has engaged in this development and how well tested this flow is. Not saying it isn’t well tested, just that Synopsys is making me wonder. Gimme a name I’ve heard of, please.

Only time will tell if Synphony is truly music to our ears, or if it is just SYNthesis that is PHONY.

harry the ASIC guy