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Archive for February 20th, 2014

A young entrepreneur’s take on EDA

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

You’ve all read many times the opinions of EDA veterans concerning this industry, so for a change I’ll humor you with my opinion as a young entrepreneur and EDA company founder. This post originally appeared on my company’s official blog (see original post). What prompted me to write this piece is Gabe’s article on Starting A New EDA Company.

In his post, Gabe is hoping for “disruption” and “a new business model”, yet he notes the “total lack of new ideas from younger people”. Hmm. Well I’m young, and I certainly do think that younger people have lots of ideas, and that they’re actually having a huge success, it’s just that it’s happening in other industries, like, for instance, the software industry. I’m talking about the Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and whatnot. Now why is that? Why are young people having success in software but not so much in semiconductor? Could it be that there is something specific about the semiconductor industry? After all, until its recent acquisition by Cadence, Forte was still called a start-up. After 16 years (it was founded in 1998). And VCs seem to agree that the money is elsewhere. So what is it?

It turns out that to create a “new successful EDA company”, you should “understand thoroughly the application industry [your company] serves”. Ok, but how is it possible for young people to do that exactly? The semiconductor industry today is mainly about designing SoCs, and that requires many different skills and companies and people working together. It takes years to become proficient in designing quality hardware with RTL, and this is only the first step to making a chip! Then you need to learn about verification (and SystemC, and SystemVerilog, and UVM, and equivalence checking, and I don’t know what else, after all I’m not a verification engineer!), and back-end, and DFT, etc. How are you supposed to thoroughly understand all this without 10 or 15 years of experience?

Maybe this explains that. I have the impression that the semiconductor industry has kind of an “old” feeling attached to it, as if the hardware industry were lagging behind the software industry. Remember when all you had was proprietary software products that were incompatible with each other? This is EDA today. Where else do you need an NDA to read a datasheet or a tool’s documentation? Where else are you forbidden to compare competing products? Sad but true: for example if you read Xilinx’s license, you will see in section 4. Restrictions, sub-section (b) General Restrictions, the following: “Licensee is not licensed to, and agrees not to: (iii) publish or disclose the results of any benchmarking of the Software”. Cadence goes further in its website’s terms of use: “Any postings to chat rooms, forums, message boards, contests, or similar information you submit, as well as any computer code, bug fix, or other creative idea you provide, shall be deemed, and shall remain, the property of Cadence“.

This kind of attitude is part of the problem. Let’s take another example. Most EDA software use the same licensing program, the well-known FlexLM. That stuff is 26 years old. Surely by now you’d imagine we would have a better solution? Well there are alternatives. So why does EDA keep using this one? Is it because this industry is a conservative triumvirate? Is it because these three are just too big? But being a behemoth has never prevented innovation! Agreed, it does make it more difficult, because of the innovator’s dilemma, but many bigger companies still manage to innovate a lot. Google’s revenue for 2013 is about $60 billion, that’s respectively around 30, 40, and 60 times the revenue of Synopsys, Cadence, and Mentor Graphics. If being big does not prevent innovation, what else could?

I think this is a cultural problem. We have a kind of chicken and egg problem, with users who have become afraid of change (including new EDA software) because change has all too often caused problems, and with companies that do not change things because they fear this is is going to cause problems or to make users angry. And in the end, users are the ones who give you money, so you try to listen to them. That’s actually fine, as long as you keep in mind that only a small percentage of users are actually innovators and early adopters, and these are the ones willing to change first; if you convince them, you have a much better chance of convincing the others (more or less easily, see Crossing the Chasm, and the post I wrote about this Are you pre-chasm?). This is a distinctive trait of the semiconductor industry in my opinion: we seem to hear the late majority (to quote the original research, “older and fairly conservative”) voice its opinion much more than one would otherwise expect.

Despite all that, though, I love writing EDA software for all hardware designers who are open to the possibility of improving their design flow. It makes me pretty happy when I meet or talk with them :-) And of course I love designing hardware with the Cx language that we created!

DownStream: Solutions for Post Processing PCB Designs
Verific: SystemVerilog & VHDL Parsers
TrueCircuits: IoTPLL

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