Outlook 2014: EDA companies enable the 'push-pull' of electronics

4 min read

When Gordon Moore observed many years ago that the number of transistors on a chip would double every 18 months, he was simply making an observation on the potential of semiconductor manufacturing. Reality proved him right and soon his observation gained the status of a prescriptive industry law.

Through the incessant drive of 'Moore's Law', the semiconductor industry has regularly delivered technology breakthroughs that have served as a 'push' for electronics companies to develop new and more sophisticated products. Once the products become available in the market, they generate a 'pull' for even more products and applications. Simply put; more powerful transistors have made more things possible. This push-pull phenomenon represents a 'techonomic' feedback loop, where technology and economics intersect to feed the hunger for more, faster, cheaper and lower power everything. The demand for all these new products brings in money, which then gets reinvested to develop even more sophisticated technology, which then enables the development of more applications, and so on. Imagine this feedback loop through the famous Escher drawing showing two hands with a pencil in each drawing each other in a circular motion and you really get the picture. Take as an example the introduction of the smartphone. Getting the first smartphone on the market required the convergence of extremely sophisticated technology to deliver a product that could process applications at lightning speed, be produced in high volume, be delivered in a pocket sized package and be sold for a reasonable price. Once the smartphone was available, it opened up whole new markets by enabling the development of new applications. The impact has been massive – behaviourally, technologically and economically – and from an 'enabling technology' perspective, has resulted in tremendous pull – 'Give us more! More battery life! More functionality! More 'smart' stuff we can't even imagine yet!'. Electronic Design Automation (EDA), by its very nature, is at the heart of this positive feedback loop, participating in the 'push' phenomenon at the process level, whilst also enabling the 'pull' of applications development through software and IP. By operating in tandem with the leading edge semiconductor manufacturing industry, EDA provides the tools and methods required to take advantage of the latest generation of advanced technology. Every 18 months, just like a well run Swiss train, a new process arrives at 'Opportunity Station'. Electronics companies must be ready to get on board the train in order to reach the next market window or face the dire economic consequences of missing the train. We in the EDA industry are completely focused on ensuring that chip designers can get to that station on time and are ready to get on the train. Being at the centre of this push-pull, EDA is the bridge between hardware creation and the 'smart' systems resulting from integrating software modules with the hardware platforms. The hardware integrates sensors, actuators, memories, algorithm execution and various forms of communication. The embedded and application software runs on top and embodies the very function that characterises the product. In 1999, Kevin Ashton at MIT created the term 'Internet of Things' to describe a system of heterogeneous objects connected through wired or wireless internet, or through internet-like communication protocols. The 'things' are objects that perform one or more specified functions connected by a communication protocol to form a system. Ashton's definition is typical of a time when the internet was considered a necessary and sufficient push factor in the creation of heterogeneous distributed systems. But this definition gives too much importance to the communication component of such systems. I prefer to use the term 'smart everything' to describe the systems we are envisioning, designing and producing. Consider a crowded multistorey car park in a busy city. The owners have installed sensors and lights over each bay to indicate whether a car is parked there or not. In addition to the lights over the bays, a device tracks the total number of cars in the car park at any given time. The data is shared in real time with a city wide system, which uses a GPS network that communicates availability for each car park in the vicinity. Using the GPS feature on their smart phone, drivers entering the city search for available parking spaces near their destination, determine quickly which car park has spaces and heads there to park. The system is the result of 'smarts' built into numerous connected components. As the hardware and software complexity involved in enabling these smart systems increases, more advanced and integrated intellectual property (IP) solutions are required. In its early days, the IP business was considered a reincarnation of the components business, made possible by the advances in logic and physical synthesis. Today, software drivers and even entire operating systems can be delivered with IP cores, creating IP subsystems. Just like you purchase a computer with its own operating system, you can now purchase communication IP with its own firmware supporting one or more protocols. This type of IP subsystem can help designers more easily develop smart, real time systems like the one in the car parking scenario, where receiving quality data from the execution environment is critical to the system's operation. As an example, by pre-integrating specific IP blocks together with an efficient processor and software in a single subsystem, Synopsys gives designers configurable, SoC ready subsystem solutions that can reduce design and integration effort significantly. With 'smart everything' on the rise – and things like sensors becoming increasingly ubiquitous – the coming year will see an increase in the power of these IP subsystems and a widening of EDA's role as the bridge between software systems and silicon. If complexity is the major obstacle on the road to 'smart everything', then at least part of the solution is to help designers partition it into modules that can be implemented with the help of IP and subsystems that enable reduced power consumption and rapid integration of functionality into SoCs. Whether you are using 65 or 14nm process technology, the devices that will be built on these technologies will offer increased 'smarts' due to the integration of features and the increased content of software modules. In essence, the techonomic feedback loop will continue to work to enable greater levels of sophistication. From the smart system that tells you where to park, to the smart vehicle that warns you someone is changing lanes into your blind spot, to the smart home that watches your vital signs and takes action if something isn't right, EDA will continue to play a central role in bringing together the push of process technology and the pull of applications to deliver 'smart everything'. Synopsys Synopsys accelerates innovation in the global electronics market. As a leader in electronic design automation and semiconductor IP, Synopsys delivers software, IP and services to help engineers address their design, verification, system and manufacturing challenges. Since 1986, engineers around the world have been using Synopsys technology to design and create billions of chips and systems. What will you design next? Aart De Geus is chairman and co-ceo of Synopsys.