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Design methods shift to software

Posted: 30 Nov 2010 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:design methodology? technology? EDA?

Evolution in nature is a slow process, wherein long periods of relatively stable environments are disturbed by large-scale changes that become the catalyst for evolution to create a large variety of mutations. Then natural selection comes along to weed out the weak ones.

It is the same for electronics design methodology. Periods of relative stability are interrupted by change, when the march of process nodes makes previously insignificant issues into major problems and when the scale of designs breaks the old methodologies. Then, new approaches abound and, as in nature, only the fittest survive.

Unlike in nature, however, these times of change are not rare, and they seem to come along every ten years. We seem to be at another of these discontinuities today.

One man survived
Let us consider our genus Homo and the family Hominid that we belong to. At one time in Africa, there were at least three different species of Homo genus living at the same time. In Europe, up until the last Ice Age 50,000 years ago, there were two living in Europe: warm weather adapted Homo Sapiens (modern humans) and cold weather adapted Homo Neanderthalensis. Today, there is only one member of the Hominoid family left on earthus. We won the genetic lottery.

So it goes with business evolutionexcept that it moves much faster. The semiconductor ecosystem, in particular, shifts its value aggregation points on a somewhat predictable time scale, followed by longer period of stability in technology and business models during which new companies are created.

These regular changes to the way electronic systems are realized usually take the form of two complementary changes. The first is a change in the way that the supply chain for semiconductors is partitioned and where the value is realized. The second is a change to EDA tools and design methodologies. Typically, the EDA change is a mixture of driving up the abstraction level to cope with increasing complexity due to Moore's law, driving down into physical effects that have become significant, and the invention of new algorithms so that the design productivity is maintained. Eventually, de facto standards emerge that everyone can work with.

Steps taken
Prior to the early 1980s, semiconductor design was completely within specialist semiconductor manufacturers that we then just called semiconductor companies but that we now call IDMs. Design tools were primitive: circuit simulation and polygon-based layout. Design was done at the transistor and polygon level. The value was almost entirely realized by the IDM. But the knowledge about how to do semiconductor design was leaking out into academia and research labs and would set the stage for the next transition.

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