Automating System Design

The impact of the chip’s changing role in the system is becoming clearer.


Change is underway in the chip design world, creating opportunities and challenges that reach far beyond questions about whether Moore’s Law is slowing or stopping.

Never before in the history of semiconductors has design been so complex and sophisticated, and never has it touched so many lives in so many interesting ways. This is all happening as a result of the chip’s enabling role in system and product development. But it also will require some sorting out, and ecosystem players are struggling to find where they can add value across a wide swath of new markets and market slices.

“The biggest thing happening in chip design is the word ‘system,’ said Wally Rhines, chairman and CEO of Mentor Graphics. “What used to be a semiconductor component became ‘system on a chip,’ and [the chip] has always been an enabler for products and systems. The difference today is that whereas the system design has always required a great deal of manual intervention and creation, it has now become complex enough that the whole system has to be designed and verified with electronic design automation and we are still in the very early stages of providing those tools.”

Looking back on the evolution of design, nothing was automated until it had to be, which means that it got so complex it couldn’t be done in the way it had done before, Rhines said. “Step-by-step we automated the whole process. That is exactly what is happening in system design. The people who used to do the wiring harness for a car did it manually. They would have ways to enter it in a computer so they could manipulate it, at least in recent years, but the idea of auto-routing or trading off different solutions to minimize wire length or weight, generating a bill of materials, delivering the diagram to the service bays so that the service technician could get your specific wiring diagram because most wiring harnesses for cars are custom designed — all of that was done manually previously. And it really took a decade before the [automated tools] were adopted broadly.”

As more evidence of this shift, today more than a third of Mentor Graphics’ revenue comes from tools specific to system design as opposed to semiconductor design, and more than half of its customers in terms of dollars comes from systems companies, he noted.

The story is similar at the other EDA leaders Cadence and Synopsys, marking a clear new direction towards system design, with all that entails.

Where design has gone in the last decade is really towards the inclusion of so much more software in electronic products, noted Simon Davidmann, CEO of Imperas. “Yes, it is a silicon chip, but there is a lot of software, so more and more you have to include the software challenge into your verification as well. Moore’s Law has given us more and more gates, effectively, and we’ve gone from gates to RTL to verification and now to software being the big challenges. It’s very easy to look at the technologies and say, ‘This is what the chip used to do, and this is what it does now, and these are the challenges in design.’ With the chip having more software content related to it now, you’ve got processors in there, you have to have firmware, and the equivalent of an OS. The next generation of this hasn’t really been considered in terms of the design automation business. As far as we’ve got today is embedded software — firmware, OSes, drivers — but the next generation is the whole systems side of things.”

For example, Davidmann cited a recent conversation with [former Cadence CEO] Joe Costello, who is now running Enlighted, a company that provides technology to make building infrastructure more efficient in terms of utilities such as lighting and heating. “That’s just the beginning of it,” he said. “The individual bits of the technology are the lighting controllers, sensors, smart cards, and the like, that detect where people are so they can control the lights, heating, open the doors and such. But these are all rather standard. The future is actually much smarter than this, and it’s where the individual bits of the technology, which will all have little processors and will communicate, create the whole system problem and how all these things interact.”

Consider when somebody is walking toward the door. Opening the door automatically is the lowest level of capability, he said. “Actually, you want to be able to track everybody in the building, so the product is not just a little bit of electronics that opened the door or detects the motion — those are all the edge devices. There will be products that are systems to monitor and look at that. They will have algorithms for controlling the doors and the elevators – and that’s all part of the product. The product is the whole solution, which is a large piece of software controlling the small pieces of software that live in all the little devices. We will have buildings that are truly automated and adapt to their usage, and this will enable significant power and energy savings.”

He noted that in a car there currently are between 300 and 400 controllers, all of which used to be isolated and very simple. “You had one that did the braking, another that did the fuel injection, another one that did the lights, another one that did the door locking. But they are now becoming part of this whole interconnected system,” Davidmann said.

Nandan Nayampally, vice of marketing for the CPU group at ARM, agreed. “You’re trying to move more and more capability to silicon, and generally that is happening for the purposes of overall cost reduction because you’re moving multiple chips worth of—and potentially boards worth of—design into a single chip, and the natural reason apart from cost is power, because that makes things portable. Now system design is becoming more complex primarily because these various components that you are pulling together operate differently. It’s how they interact with each other, so the architecture of what you are building needs to reflect the kind of application you are building it for. Design is becoming more driven by the workloads it is going to run rather than just having a general-purpose solution.”

As such, the challenge of the product isn’t how to get the little controllers that open the doors to work. The problem that needs to be solved is the thing that brings it all together. It’s the solution the customer buys. “Product design has changed from the chip to the little box to the controller to the little bit of software that lives in it. But actually it’s becoming much more than that. Again, the product isn’t the little bit of electronics. It’s the software and applications that run on it,” Davidmann explained. “The way product design is changing is it’s moving from isolated things to much smarter systems. It’s electronic products all having to talk to each other, and that becomes the system.”

Changing business dynamics
This doesn’t mean chip design is any less important. By all accounts, it is the enabler for products in many different areas.

“The change is that it is part of a bigger ecosystem,” said Nimish Modi, senior vice president of marketing and business development at Cadence. “It’s such an integral part of the ecosystem, of the product itself, and that is causing changes in the industry. Over the past few years, the industry has been transforming to a model of application-driven system design, wherein the system stacks are being optimized for specific workloads. So providing the optimal user experience dictates the system requirements, which in turn is defining the chip specifications.”

Driving this are systems companies competing to provide increasing differentiation in the race to get their end product to market faster, Modi said. “How are they going about doing that? You can see some structural changes in the sense that there’s an increasing trend toward vertical integration by these systems companies. They want to own the system stack. They want to develop the different components of the system stack so that different layers can be co-optimized for their own specific needs. One of the biggest results of this paradigm change has been several systems companies are now building out their own SoC development teams. It’s not just contracting and buying the chips on the merchant market. Of course, some of that continues to happen. But for the really critical SoC functions, they want to develop and build them themselves.”

Another impact of the move to application-driven system design is that systems companies are now working much closer with their ecosystem, including EDA companies. They are not just for tools but for IP, and high-end services, Modi said.

From the semiconductor company viewpoint, they are also evolving because they need to incorporate some of the practices and deliverables that used to be done only by systems companies a few years ago, he noted. “For example, of course they need to deliver the chip with the specifications that are required. But more than that, they now need to provide some layers of the software stack. The lower layers of the software stack need to come from them. They need to do OS ports, perform hardware/software verification in a broader system context, perform system-level analysis and packaging and board level co-development/chip-package-board analysis. All of these are newer capabilities, newer competencies, newer requirements, newer deliverables, which the semiconductor companies need to perform. They need to develop the competencies for doing these kinds of things, as well as needing a broader portfolio for enablement to make them successful. If you take a giant step back and look at this with the benefit of a 10-year delta, this is a very different environment than it used to be.”

Manufacturing impacts on the system
The mindset shift to systems takes manufacturing into account as well. Mike Gianfagna, vice president of marketing at eSilicon, questions where we’ve been and where we’re headed. “It’s sort of a leading edge, trailing edge kind of dynamic. On the leading-edge things have changed dramatically in the semiconductor business. People don’t build a chip anymore. They deliver a reference platform in a system.”

Companies like Qualcomm have been further harbingers of this by stating publicly that they have more software people than hardware people by a large margin. “It used to be verification was the long pole in a chip project,” Gianfagna said. “Now it is software,” he said. “The world has gone the way that the difference between the chip design and the product the chip enables is blurring. Semiconductor vendors, in order to maintain their value, are getting squeezed. They need to provide a broader platform and more value. This is a big problem.”

It also has produced some big changes. “If you look at the systems companies, Apple is a good example of one that is a very forward thinker. It was one of the first to bring chip design in-house, realizing that the chip enabled the product and therefore the software guys should say, ‘Build me a chip that runs at this software well,’ as opposed to the other way around, which is how it used to be. Yes, they were ahead of the game, but in that world it creates an interesting squeeze play for the semiconductor vendor because the foundries on one side of them are taking more and more value from them because who else could spend $9 billion to build a fab? There aren’t many. The foundry attitude seems to be, ‘If you need it I’m going to charge you for it,’ so value is migrating down downstream to the foundries because there are so few left that can really afford to do it and know how to do it. At the same time, value is migrating up to the systems OEMs that have realized a chip and the system become an integral part of a product. So the semiconductor guys get squeezed in the middle and get commoditized.”

The counterbalance to that is to add more software, add more system competency contents to a product, build a platform with something like the Qualcomm Snapdragon platform – there are a lot of examples like that, he said.

“There is absolutely a need for chip design to become a product development platform in the future. It seems inescapable to me that the chips of the future are going to be designed in the context of a system with software and in context of a horrendously complex manufacturing process and all of the machine learning and data analytics required to support that – and it’s all got to come together in one product development platform. It’s an electronic product development system. It’s not an electronic design automation system. And it contains lots of different disciplines in one delivered environment,” Gianfagna added.

At the end of the day, chip design is no less important. In fact it is just as much of an enabler as ever, particularly considering the importance of IP and IP subsystems.

As a result, semiconductor companies right now are moving upstream very strongly, observed John Koeter, vice president of marketing for IP and prototyping at Synopsys. He said they need to spend a lot more of their resources on architecture ecosystem development and software, rather than focusing just on chip design. “As they go upstream it creates a wake that pulls the supply chain along with them, so the supply chain has to move right back up by providing bigger blocks and collaborating more and providing software solutions.”

Davidmann added that in many ways, chip design is predictable and a solved problem. “You can buy the processor cores, you can put them together, you can do the verification. But the new world is about how smart can systems be when I interconnect them. You could think of chip design as having changed due to abstraction and complexity and people buying blocks. They now do RTL, they now do embedded verification, they’re now worried about the software. However, the bigger shift is in the change around products, to no longer be isolated things. They have to be components of a larger, integrated system, which may interact with a smartphone or management software, for example. In this way, the electronics become the interfaces to the world.”

Related Stories
Automotive System Design Challenges
System-Level Verification Tackles New Role
Racing To Design Chips Faster
Why Test Is Changing

  • Karl Stevens

    Why is software thought to be so different from hardware? It is just a different syntax for describing the logic of the design. That is why designers trade off how function is implemented.
    There is too much emphasis on language and abstraction. It is the logic that determines when and how no matter how the logic is implemented/described.
    Analyzing a program and hardware is simply finding the dependencies for making assignments. The cpu cycle is analogous to the HW clock because things happen when allowed by the dependent conditions.
    Some things are just fundamental.