Jim Hogan’s annual “Hogan’s Heroes” DAC Pavilion Panel rocked as usual. This year, Hogan invited three panelists: Grant Pierce (Sonics), Jack Harding (eSilicon), and Ajoy Bose (Atrenta). All four of these people spend a lot of time thinking about the future of System, SoC, and Silicon Realization and each had something significant to say during this DAC Pavilion panel.
Hogan started with an overview—the “Reaggregation of Ecosystem Value” he called it. “We’ve reached an information age” said Hogan, where the information companies (like Apple) are valued in the business market the way natural-resource companies (like Exxon) were valued in the 20th century. Hogan then projected a graph of market capitalization showing how Apple’s market cap has approached that of Exxon’s over the past few decades. However, said Hogan, it’s not just Apple. You could just as well use Cisco as an example.
Consequently, said Hogan, there’s a shift from building apps that run on one SoC to building SoCs that can support standardized software platforms (Google’s Android, Apple’s iOS). The reason for this shift, said Hogan, is because advanced-process SoCs are so expensive to build that they must be designed for an existing and growing ecosystem of platform and apps. That’s the only way for consumer-driven products to reach the sales volumes needed to justify the cost of a new SoC’s development.
Pierce spoke next, confirming Hogan’s position. “Software is now very dominant; it outlives the hardware” he said. Design teams are no longer building application-based semiconductors; they’re building SoCs capable of supporting an apps store. This software apps collection must span multiple hardware implementations, he said, ranging from the smallest music player to the MacBook Air (in the case of Apple).
Harding provided another view of the same situation. “Smaller, faster, cheaper, lower power—those things haven’t changed” he said. What has changed? “Add more complexity on top of that.” Today, said Harding, SoC Realization teams are making the same sorts of tradeoffs that system-level developers made previously. However, SoC Realization teams have an even more difficult problem because advanced process nodes make the number of available permutations essentially unlimited. Consequently, SoC Realization teams need a fast way to prune less attractive, less practical alternatives from their decision trees. Harding claimed that eSilicon, with its growing database of successful SoC design projects, can mine that database to help prune the choices down to a more manageable number.
That database contains information about IP use and process technologies “down to the Spice level” he said. For example, said Harding, TSMC now offers 12 process flavors and 40 libraries. Just from those options, SoC and Silicon Realization teams face 500 permutations. Add in the software choices and you can see how quickly the number of choices rises exponentially.
Essentially, said Harding, humans can no longer make optimal choices in this expanded universe. Just was we automated the place-and-route task that was once done solely through human effort, we must now automate the selection of process technology and IP claimed Harding. “No human can develop optimal architectures based on the available permutations” he said. “The problems have become bigger than life.” These are not the same challenges we’ve faced over the past 15 years of SoC design he concluded.
Then it was Bose’s turn to speak. “Systems companies want to be more empowered in making decisions” he said. They want:
- Vendor independence
- A design flow (theirs) supported by partners
- Differentiated IP from neutral sources
- More visibility into the design cycle
This is good for the EDA industry, said Bose. If the EDA industry supports these trends to help system companies become more successful. Large system houses (specifically Apple and Google) recognize the value of creating SoCs as product differentiators, Bose said later. These are the killer-app creators.
“Apple is [currently] the only company where die size is not important” noted Pierce. That’s because Apple also provides software that helps “mine” the value out of the silicon. This statement recognizes that software has now become a player of equal value to hardware in contemporary consumer product design.
“IC design has already changed from the way it was,” said Bose, “and it will continue to evolve.” If EDA continues to bring down the overall design costs for SoCs, more chips will be designed.