Software-Driven Electronic Design Automation

Customer adoption shows just how far we are into this new era, and the possibilities are limitless.


As the EDA industry prepares to descend on Austin in less than two weeks for the 50th annual Design Automation Conference (DAC), I am wondering what this DAC will be about. It’s pretty simple. One of the key themes will be about “software-driven EDA,” a term I’d love to claim to have invented but am happy to attribute to Jim Ready of Ready Systems and Montavista fame – our chief technology advisor for embedded software – whom I have the pleasure of working with almost daily.

Ten years ago, Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli keynoted at the 40th DAC. He reviewed the first 40 years in a presentation called “The Tides of EDA,” later published as a paper in IEEE Design & Test of Computers. He likened the phases of EDA to the ever repeating history as described by his fellow countryman and historian Giovan Battista Vico in ”Scientia Nova” in 1650.

Vico identified three phases in mankind’s history: the age of gods, the age of heroes, and the age of men. The age of gods is characterized by knowledge that comes to people from the use of their senses and Sangiovanni-Vincentelli likened the timeline of 1964 to 1978 to the age of gods in EDA when industry pioneers laid the foundations of EDA with seminal papers that continue to have a strong impact today.

Vico’s age of heroes is the age of creativity, the foundation of great human achievements. In Sangiovanni-Vincentelli’s view the time from 1979 to 1993 was the corresponding age in EDA in which the “field exploded in all its aspects.” DAC during this period was characterized by vibrancy and enthusiasm that permeated the presentation rooms, and the exhibits were a clear sign of the community’s healthy growth.

Vico’s age of men is characterized by reason. Rational analysis dissects events, novelty and creativity are feared as jumps into the dark because no analysis can guarantee any initiative’s success. Sangiovanni-Vincentelli saw that shift start happening in EDA back in 1993 with the vendor community maturing and attention shifting to the bottom line and less risk taking.

While Vico identified the age of men as the beginning of decay in society, he also found that after the decadence of this period, mankind would again loop through the three stages, returning to the next age of gods. Continuing ASV’s tides puts us right in the age of gods again. In his paper from 10 years ago, Sangiovanni-Vincentelli looked forward to a future of EDA driven by societal-scale applications, support for the design chain, embedded system design and design for manufacturing. Abstraction and trends towards software were key drivers in his mind as shown in his paper’s Figure 4. And where Alberto was right about the direction, Jim Ready found the right name for the next phase.

Example Chip enabled by Software-Driven EDA

Example Chip enabled by Software-Driven EDA

Probably the single most important new component that gained more and more influence on chip design over the last decade is software. “Software-driven EDA” is the appropriate name for the phase we are in. I have argued the point of software becoming an issue for the traditional customers of EDA, i.e. the semiconductor companies, for a while now. In short, over the last 15 years they have gone from delivering basic drivers for their silicon to delivering base ports of several operating systems – Android, Linux, Windows – as well as ports of middleware for graphics, video, audio and networking as part of the silicon they deliver.

Two basic kinds of software are important in the age of “software-driven EDA.”

First there is the software that in combination enables the experience of the end user.  As indicated in the figure associated with this post, it may be structured as a stack of firmware, operating systems, drivers, middleware and applications, as a communication’s stack enabling the different layers of the OSI protocol, or as bare metal software.

Second, there is software that is not visible to the end user and is used for verification of the hardware and its interaction with the software. More and more users I speak to are using embedded software tests executing either directly, bare metal on top of the hardware or as software running on top of Android, Windows, Linux or dedicated test operating systems.

The exciting aspect is how far we are in this phase – customer adoption speaks for itself! Looking forward to DAC in Austin, our Cadence Theatre will feature about 53 presentations, and literally all 13 presentations related to the System Development Suite given by customers and partners involve software aspects. Software has an impact on performance and needs to be analysed as you will be able to see in presentations from Marvell and Freescale. Hardware and software are verified in each other’s respective context in three engines. First, Broadcom, AMD, Texas Instruments, Freescale and LeCroy will present on related aspects with Palladium XP emulation. Freescale, DINI, Bluespec and sTec will talk about software development in FPGA based prototyping. Finally, Methods2Business, ARM and Bluespec will show aspects of software development and debug using VSP virtual prototyping connected to hardware assisted verification.

Looks like we are indeed in the midst of the era of “software-driven EDA.” See y’all in Austin to experience it!

Frank Schirmeister