Software Drives Design Requirements

Everyone is watching Apple’s success for cues; what it means for design is still being debated.

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By Ann Steffora Mutschler
As product design evolves to contain more and more software, that software—including the applications that run on the device—is now starting to drive design and process requirements. This change is causing ripples throughout the semiconductor industry, driving evolutionary thinking about where to go next.

OEMs have taken notice of a new dynamic and want to capture the same kind of continuous revenue stream that Apple has pioneered with its devices: the iPhone, iPod and iPad.

“Looking at Apple from a business model perspective, the dollar is moving uphill, the value is moving uphill towards the application, however to enable that Apple is using the hardware and the operating system as a locking mechanism to extract revenue and customs from it,” said Frank Schirrmeister, director of product marketing for system-level solutions at Synopsys. “There is a channel to Apple’s hardware device. They own the channel. They define the channel and they extract the 20% or 30% fee that application developers have to give to Apple.”

Ironically, Apple is leveraging the hardware and lower-level software, including the OS, to achieve that level of ownership.

“From a design perspective, it is actually that gateway—the operating system—which is tied to the hardware which enables that. So it’s not necessarily the application defining the hardware, it’s the hardware enabling the application. From a design perspective, what the hardware developer has to do today if they define a platform as Apple is defining the iPhone as a platform. They have to define it wide enough so that it can serve a variety or number of applications but it’s not essentially yet at a point where the application is defining the hardware,” Schirrmeister said.

To many, application-driven design today means there is a well-defined platform and the design engineer has done their homework to understand what type of applications the platform needs to support.

“It is conceivable that at [some] point, the platform [will be] so broadly defined like a multiprocessor platform that you can then automate this notion of configuring the hardware to meet an application. What that means is the approach which is concurrent compilation: you take an application and split it up, and you automate how it is implemented on a given hardware piece. But that is really a software-related design flow where the application is driving the implementation,” Schirrmeister continued.

EDA’s changing role
With these dynamics in play, EDA vendors are striving to chart a way forward.

“EDA companies help you get from RTL to silicon, but all of their customers are saying, “That isn’t the problem. The problem is I’ve got algorithms in software that are driving my platforms. How are you helping me with that?” said Simon Davidmann, president and CEO of Imperas, and founding director of OVP. “The customers are saying those are correct [virtual platforms and system-level design techniques] but actually it is a bigger problem – software is driving it. I absolutely believe that it is the software that is driving things, and it’s not driving it from a naïve point of view—you have to know what type of platform you are running on and the type of performance it can give you. For example, if you are building a device, someone might say it’s got to have Android. That defines the complexity of the platform you’ve got to build, it defines the performance of the processor you’ve got to use—and it probably points you in the direction of one processor or another.”

Ideally you want tools that allow you to do the tradeoffs with virtual platforms a key piece of the technology needed, but don’t panic, Davidmann advises. All of the pieces to this puzzle are not going to come together overnight. “With all of this, there has to be a learning process that we all have to go through: the tool providers, the methodology providers and the customers that will adopt it. It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight – it’s going to take several years but the great thing is that people are beginning to understand it is the software. The world is moving to understand this but I don’t think anybody has all of the answers as to how to solve it.”

While the specific tool flow of the future is not clear as of yet, Cadence clearly articulated the issues earlier this year when it announced its EDA360 vision. At the heart of this is looking at how design has to change with general purpose SoCs and processors often not fitting the bill any longer.

“The biggest thing is always volume,” said Steve Leibson, marketing director and EDA360 evangelist at Cadence. “The high volume applications fight for every penny to reduce the unit cost of the SoC. The only way to do that is to optimize the SoC for the particular application so you’ve got to start with the applications.”

One of the most interesting changes propelling this vision is the rise of the Android operating system, which Leibson highlighted has “skyrocketing into prominence and is causing the coalescence the embedded industry around far fewer number of operating systems. That’s one of the enablers for this applications-driven orientation.”

“We’re still a long way in connecting the hardware and software worlds. And that’s why Cadence came out with its EDA360 vision, which identifies this gap. The thing that is new about EDA360 is that it puts down on paper what people have been talking about for 10 years in one form or another, but really circling the wagons to say that the world has changed, is changing and will continue to change,” he said.

While the industry used to operate under a simple mercantile model, Apple pioneered a different sort of model. The other system vendors have seen that and want a similar continuous revenue model for themselves.

“To us, that is the whole thing driving it. With the interconnectedness of everything, you can now get this continuous revenue model for things you could never get it from before,” Leibson noted, pointing to TVs and cars as application platforms. “That means if you want to design the most efficient silicon to enable these apps, you really have to keep in mind what the apps are in the first place. You’ve got the change the cost/revenue model for these chips somehow to improve their profitability so that it’s more attractive for people to design more chips.”