Can the EDA Software Industry Evolve Successfully?

The fundamental building blocks of technology rely on EDA, but so far the industry is dragging its feet about asserting itself.

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The most fundamental industry question of the moment is uncomfortably simple: Can EDA move beyond itself?

Industry growth is sluggish, and innovation via startups seems—seems because that’s a flabby statement—static today.

Cadence CEO and venture capitalist Lip-bu Tan put it plainly in an interview:
“If you look at the bigger picture, the semiconductor industry has not grown for the last few years and actually it’s declining. That’s troublesome for me. If the industry is not growing, it becomes a dog-eat-dog business.”

And yet—let’s be honest here—no EDA, no world economic growth. Period. No semiconductors. No PCBs. No systems on top of which to run apps to fundamentally change society. No nothin’.

Right here, right now
EDA’s opportunity lays at its feet right now.

As design grew more complex over the past 40 years, the semiconductor industry disaggregated to create specialty sectors to serve design engineers and improve productivity. Enter EDA, which had to quickly morph from solving point design problems to enabling engineers to tackle increasingly complex systems with platforms. (See Ed Sperling’s great analysis of EDA acquisitions and strategy over time).

Now EDA is morphing from a tools-and-platform industry to a design-enablement business, through the flurry of IP acquisitions we’ve seen from Cadence, Synopsys and others.

Changing design dynamics
This is driven partly, as my colleague and fellow Semiconductor Engineering blogger Frank Schirrmeister writes, by a change in the customer base:
“Apple (is) … developing its own silicon. In parallel Google had developed Android as an operating system, mostly to capture “eyeballs” watching their advertisements, adding the Android Market as a channel. At that time subsystems also started to rise—IP providers such as ARC and Tensilica would not only provide core blocks but also integrated sub-systems. In 2011 ARM announced its big.LITTLE architecture for low power, further strengthening the rise of pre-defined subsystems. Google added hardware with its Motorola acquisition and the Android Market became Google Play…”

But things remain stagnant. We still can’t build chips in a garage in a couple of days, as NVidia Chief Scientist Bill Daly called for at DAC this year.

The problem may be, as Gary Smith puts it on our web TV show Unhinged, “EDA isn’t bold enough. EDA is stumbling into a leadership position in the semiconductor ecosystem, the electronics ecosystem.”

Smith said he’s not sure why that’s the case.

Architecture opportunity
Earlier this year, I had some time with Tensilica founder and now Cadence Fellow Chris Rowen, who is trademark articulate manner, filled in some of the “why” blanks:
“I would put it in crude terms of moving past EDA, past the focus of ‘this is how you do it’ much more to today ‘this is what you should do.’ Meaning, (EDA) is a lot more central to defining, architecting, building, programming these silicon platforms. And (it’s) less about taking the architect’s conception of it and doing the back-end implementation.”

He went on to put a finer point on it:
“I do believe as the semiconductor guys have to move up and up in abstraction…the question of the chip architecture can and should be left more and more to efficient suppliers who are able to fill in the holes.”

Makes sense to me, but how do we get from here to there?

Or is there another way you envision healthy growth returning to the industry?


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