Old standards never die

I just put up a blog about the EDA interoperability forum, much of which is focused on standards. Which reminded me just how long-lived some standards turn out to be.

Back in the late 1970s Calma shipped workstations (actually re-badged Data General minicomputers) with a graphic display. That was how layout was done. It’s also why, before time-based licenses, EDA had a hardware business model, but that’s a story for another day. The disk wasn’t big enough to hold all the active designs, so the typical mode of operation was to keep your design on magnetic tape when you weren’t actually using the system. Plus you could use a different system next time rather than having to get back on the same system (this was pre-ethernet). The Calma system was called the graphic design system and the second generation was (surprise) labeled with a two. That tape backup format was thus called “graphic design system 2 stream format”. Or more concisely GDS2. Even today it is the most common format for moving physical layout design data between systems or to mask-makers, over 30 years
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Apple is the Most Valuable Company in the World

I wrote about six months ago about how Apple was the most valuable tech company in the world. At the time Exxon was still significantly ahead and it seemed unlikely that Apple would catch them quickly.

But today it happened. With all the turmoil in the stock markets, Apple is now the most valuable company in the world, $500M ahead of Exxon when I last looked (so it could go either way in the short term).

The thing Apple seems to do better than anyone else is make profit. It has a small share of the overall mobile phone market, for example (measured by units or revenue) but it makes over 2/3 of all the profit. And I’m not talking about the smartphone market, the entire mobile handset market.

Almost everything they do has a lot of serious critics but it ha all paid off. Retail stores? So 20th century when everything is online. Design your own chips? You should outsource everything you can to experts. Enter the phone market? It’s just a handset (quote from the then CEO of Nokia)

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On-chip supercomputers, AMBA 4, Coore’s law

At DAC I talked with Mike Dimelow of ARM about the latest upcoming revision to the AMBA bus standards, AMBA 4. The standard gets an upgrade about every 5 years. The original ARM in 1992 ran at 10MIPS with a 20MHz clock. The first AMBA bus was a standard way to link the processor to memories (through the ARM system bus ASB) and to peripherals (through the ARM peripheral bus APB). Next year ARM-bsed chips will run at 2.5Ghz and deliver 7000 MIPS.

Eric’s story of Thomson-CSF’s attempt to build a processor of this type of performance in 1987 points out that in those days that would have qualified as a supercomputer.

The latest AMBA standard proposal actually steals a lot of ideas from the supercomputer world. One of the biggest problems with multi-core computing once you get a lot of cores is the fact that each core has its own cache and when the same memory line is cached in more than one place they need to be kept coherent. The simplest way to do this, which works fine for a small number of cores, is to keep the line in only one cache and invalidate it in all the others. Each cache monitors the address lines for any writes and invalidates its own copy, known as snooping. As the number of cores creeps up this become unwieldy and is a major performance hit as more and more memory accesses turn out to be to invalidated lines that therefore require an off-chip memory access (or perhaps another level cache, but much slower either way). The problem is further compounded by peripherals, such as graphics processors, that access memory too.

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Going to DAC? There’s an app for that

Are you going to DAC in San Diego? Do you have an iPhone? In which case Bill Deegan’s dac48 app is something you should install before you get there. It’s free, which makes a nice change from EDA software pricing.

The app substitutes for the various paper, agendas and maps that you need to consult to find exhibitors, check up when sessions are and put them on your calendar. It’s not perfect (he ran out of time); for instance the booth numbers are not linked on the exhibitor map.

And yes, it’s only on iPhone so far, Android probably has to wait until DAC49.

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Intel buys an ARMy?

Is Intel in trouble? Since it is the #1 semiconductor company and, shipping 22nm in Q4 this year with 14nm in 2013, it is two process generations ahead of everyone else it is hard to see why it would be. Intel, of course, continues to dominate the market for chips for notebooks, desktops and servers. But therein lies the problem. Pads are killing netbooks and nibbling at notebooks. These are not growing markets and actually are starting to gradually shrink. Instat reckons that in Q1 2011 PC volumes are down 2-3% from Q1 2010, largely due to incursion of iPads.

The growing markets are largely ARM-based: smartphones and iPad type computers. Intel’s approach to these markets has not been a success. First, after its acquisition of (part of) Digital’s semiconductor business it got StrongARM, renamed it Xscale, and invested something like a billion dollars in trying to penetrate the communications business. Eventually it disposed of that business to Marvell in a fire sale. Depending on what residual rights they retained this could turn out to have been an enormous strategic error. They didn’t just give up a ARM manufacturing license, they gave up a do-pretty-much-anything ARM architectural license.

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Carl Icahn

I ran into Wally Rhines at a Mentor press event yesterday. As I was leaving he took time to tell me how great the EDAgraffiti book is. “The best book on the EDA industry.” Actually, I think it is about the only book on the EDA industry so that is not necessarily a high bar to clear, but it was nice to receive the compliment anyway. He also told me that he keeps meaning to send me a note since he found an error in one of the pieces about Moore’s law. It’s hard to believe that there could be something wrong on the Internet, but there you are.

Then Wally told me,  “I immediately sent a copy to Carl Icahn.” So the EDAgraffiti book is up there with poison pills and the rest as an anti-takeover device!

To get your own copy, just click on “book” at the top of the page.

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I’ve been following the cell-phone industry for years, ever since I was involved in strategic planning for VLSI Technology’s communications group, one of the first semiconductor companies to get involved in, first, GSM and then CDMA (we had a license from Qualcomm that I negotiated but that’s another long story).

Nokia has been a dominant player in the market, which isn’t immediately obvious if you live in the US or Japan where it, well, isn’t. But one in three cell-phones shipped is a Nokia phone. In rough numbers they ship a millions cell-phones every day.

Until very recently they had the largest market share for smart-phones too, based on their Symbian operating system that they tried to make independent, then tried to make open source and now have rolled back in again. But they missed the market for hi-end smartphones which are dominated by Apple/iOS and Google/Android.

They are also starting to struggle at the low end. A lot of those hundreds of millions of phones are low-end phones at very low prices for poor countries, But companies like Mediatek pretty much have turnkey chipsets for phones, and so relatively small companies in China can undercut them.

Earlier this week a memo from the CEO of Nokia, Stephen Elop (doesn’t that sound like a programming language) was leaked. It talked about a worker on an oil rig jumping into the icy waters to avoid certain death from the flames behind him. Elop reckons Nokia is at that point.

Nokia has had a very confusing operating system strategy to say the least. Nokia OS, Symbian, Meego, Maemo and now…Windows Phone 7.

Elop is an ex-Microsoft employee so perhaps it was just natural that he would do a deal with his old employer. Microsoft needs a major partner if it is going to have any success in the mobile industry, its previous attempts being somewhere between unsuccessful and disastrous. WP7 was apparently doing so badly that Microsoft has stopped saying how many phones shipped after some initially good sounding numbers where were basically just phones for loading the channel, which won’t be needed unless some come out the other end.

I just don’t see how WP7/Nokia can possibly catch up to iOS and Android. In fact Android’s momentum is so strong that even iOS could be threatened. In Q4 last year Android appeared to be registering as many phones a day as AT&T did in the whole quarter (of course outside the US there are other carriers using iPhone so that’s not the total shipments).

WP7 is not really designed to run on a broad range of different handsets, it has very specific processors and chips that must be used in the hardware. So porting WP7 to Nokia’s line may be hard.

So I think Nokia is probably doomed, with the wrong operating system at the high end and not enough time to get it right, and cheap competition at the low end (where there is lots of volume but it  was unclear how much money Nokia really made).

I’m not the only person who doesn’t think much of this strategy. Nokia was down 15% on the announcement.

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EDA and Wall Street

Good news in a way: Merrill Lynch (or Bank of America Merrill Lynch as I suppose we have to get used to calling them) have re-started coverage of EDA with a 20 page report on the industry, much of which is spent on explaining how the industry segments out and who is strong in which segments, stuff that most people reading this site already know. Read more…

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I spent Tuesday at DesignCon. I expected more EDA participation. All the big guys were there with skeleton crews and a few middle sized guys but they were outnumbered by all sorts of companies that are peripheral to design. How many companies making various forms of connectors are there?

It turned out one of the most interesting things was a lunch meeting with Tyco Electronics. To be honest, I only went because they provided somewhere to sit and a free lunch. They were announcing some new technology around RJ-45 (the plug of the internet, that you plug wired ethernet into). I had no idea that…read more

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3D chips: design tools

One of the open areas for 3D chip design is what the design methodology needs to be and what design tools will be required. A more fundamental issue is going to be the business model to pay for tool development. At least in the short term, only a few 3D designs are going to be done and so a conventional EDA “build the tools and wait for everyone to do 3D designs” is not going to work. In fact Antun Domic of  Synopsys, presenting at the 3D conference, explicitly pointed this out: EDA works economically when a large number of people use the same methodology so that the methodology can be wrapped up in the tools and sold in volume. Wally Rhines at the EDAC CEO forecast meeting said the same thing: that if semiconductor vendors expected to get 3D tools without paying incrementally for them then it was unlikely to happen.

IBM didn’t really talk about the design tools needed to design their 3D server chip with the processor on top and the memory underneath. But clearly designing a huge DRAM with holes for TSVs punched through it all over the place and the interconnect full of decoupling capacitors wasn’t done by hand.

One talk was by Vassilios Gerousis from Cadence and Damien Riquet from ST (calling in from France at 2 in the morning his time) about a 2.5D chip they had designed. They were using conventional Cadence tools somewhat unconventionally to get the job done, since it appeared there was no real explicit 3D support .

The first challenge in 3D design is to be able to analyze different approaches for efficiency: routing congestion, TSV density, microbump density, impact on power supply (IR drop etc). Unfortunately this is not straightforward since there are not yet any tools that do this directly: multi-floor floorplanners. The next best is to build the design and be able to analyze it. At this point in the technology there is not a lot of flexibility about what goes on what die since usually the die are different processes (DRAM, analog, RF, CCD etc). But eventually when designs stack multiple die and blocks of IP have several layers where they might reside then automation will presumably be required here just as floorplanning has become essential for regular 2D design.

Cadence/ST created a tool to place the TSVs and the microbumps in regular arrays. Experience has shown that this tends to work better than putting them down randomly since you have some flexibility to design blocks with holes that have more than one place they can be located. They seemed to use a mixture of IC routing and custom design tools to design the interposer. They could then use conventional analysis tools and look at the system as whole from the point of view of power-supply analysis, static timing, thermal effects and so on. OpenAccess served as the link between the various tools, in particular allowing both digital tools (P&R) and custom tools (layout) to work on the same data.

I think the most interesting thing about this is that, at least for a relatively simple design with a non-active silicon interposer, it was possible to get the design done without requiring a complete portfolio of new tools with new support.

The biggest areas of opportunity (and biggest may be a relative term since it is not clear how big the market is for any of these) are floorplanning and general validation of the design (do all microbumps line up, are the voltage levels between die OK and so on). All the big EDA companies have some sort of place & route and floorplanning and might decide to play here. Then there is thermal analysis where a company like Gradient probably has an opportunity to extend their technology into another dimension. General analysis of the electrical aspects of the design could be an opportunity for Apache. Right now the biggest risk for an EDA company is likely to be over-investment rather than missing the boat. 3D ICs are coming but there is not going to be an instantaneous switch with thousands of 3D design starts any time soon, if ever.

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