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 What Would Joe Do?
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena is a freelance journalist and Editor of EDA Confidential at www.aycinena.com. She can be reached at peggy at aycinena dot com.

Sigasi: Best of both worlds, Hardware & Software

 
October 26th, 2017 by Peggy Aycinena


Dr. Philippe Faes  and Dr. Hendrick Eeckhaut together founded Sigasi in 2008
. Since that time, Belgium-based Sigasi has accomplished the impossible: Taking the best elements of software design and applying them to hardware design. The Sigasi Studio IDE takes the type of feature-rich development environment that facilitates software design and redefines it for hardware design.

Early one morning last week, I spoke by phone with Hendrick Eekhaut, who serves as CTO at Sigasi. He was in Belgium, I was in California. After our conversation, he headed out to dinner; I headed in for breakfast.


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WWJD: How are things going?

Hendrik Eeckhaut: It’s going very well, thank you. We are really proud of how happy our customers are with our tools. The people who start using our tools, keep using our tools and help to build our market share.

WWJD: How old is the company?

Hendrik Eeckhaut: We started as a small company in Ghent. Next January, we will be 10 years old. We have big festivities planned.

WWJD: In a nutshell, can you describe your technology?

Hendrik Eeckhaut: The mission is to redefine digital design.

Both founders have a background in software and hardware design, and know there are so many lessons in the software world that can be used in the hardware world. We started by taking the very best of the software world and applying it to the hardware world.

In software, we deal with tremendous complexity, there are so many mechanics to deal with it. But hardware designers have so many problems as well, so many complexities to deal with, so many levels of abstraction.

We help hardware designers, so they can focus on the creative aspects, the hard aspects, and we deal with everything else.

In a nutshell, Sigasi Studio is an IDE, a design environment for both VHDL and SystemVerilog, or mixes of both, that helps designers get their job done faster and in better way – and also have some fun.

WWJD: Are you saying that designers don’t have a lot of fun?

Hendrik Eeckhaut: [laughing] Hardware design can be really frustrating, and it doesn’t allow you to stop for a beer every 24 hours.

We continuously analyze your HDL code in the background. Think of it as a word processor. If you make a typo, the word processor lets you know. We do something similar.

While you’re typing code, if there is a missing article here, or the coding guidelines you’re using requires a capital letter, we will let you know. You get the feedback as you code, because it’s easier to fix then, and also for syntax to be fixed.

Even though I did a lot of HDL designing for 10 years, I still make mistakes because these languages are so complex. Which is why is it so useful to get feedback [as you work].

For instance, when I was designing I knew that a synthesis run would take 6 hours. So I did some last-minute changes on my code at the end of the day, started synthesis, and went home. Unfortunately, it sometimes failed after just one minute, and I had to start all over again when I returned in the morning, instead of being done.

Now with Sigasi Studio, it helps the designer stay in the zone, to know if the code has errors before it runs.

WWJD: How often do you have to upgrade your product to reflect changes in the language standards?

Hendrik Eeckhaut: That part of EDA moves slowly, so that’s good news for us.

For HDLs, we have to upgrade for the new standard coming up. The ecosystem is really important, so we are part of the standardization committee and are well prepared. We know what changes are coming up.

We are small company compared to other EDA companies, so it’s really important to work together. Not only by making sure the different tools integrate well that the end users have, but also by making sure we are involved in HDL standardization.

WWJD: And the other tools in your portfolio?

Hendrik Eeckhaut: Actually, all of our features are integrated in Sigasi Studio, so the tool keeps evolving.

In the early days, we released every two weeks, but now only four times a year because the system administrators didn’t like that. It’s always a balance here. We do have preview builds that we release more often, so our early adopters can have a faster loop to try out new features and give us feedback.

It is a cliché, but we really are user driven. They use our tools, and that is part of our development process.

The support engineers in our company sit together with our developers on a daily basis to hear what’s going on at the customers’ sites. Our first idea is always to develop tools to support our customers, rather than just add documentation.

We are different from a classic EDA company in that sense. Classic EDA is focused on the back-end, making sure that EDA code is translated as efficiently as possible into netlists, that all corner cases are covered for batch processing. They always presume the HDL code is ready and without errors.

But if you run a Verilog file through a standard EDA tool, it just stops at the very first error, sometimes even a semicolon. From our perspective, that code was still imperfect which is why our design environment [looks for] broken code.

WWJD: Are there things in a classic software design environment that differ from a hardware design environment?

Hendrik Eeckhaut: We think about this a lot, because there are big differences between software and hardware. The hardware world develops smaller pieces of code, and in the software world there is lots of open source tooling. And they are software engineers, so it’s easier for them to write their own tools.

WWJD: Do you therefore need your employees to have this good training in both software and hardware?

Hendrik Eeckhaut: The people we hire are really passionate about parsers and language design. For them, in a sense, Verilog and VHDL are just other languages.

But that is only partially true, because digital design is different from software design. We have to make [our developers] aware of corner cases and, for instance, clock domain crossing are really strange to software designers.

On the other hand, lots of hardware designers could also benefit from a more software-type of approach, trying to solve problems at the highest abstraction level. It’s very easy for them to fall into the trap of only optimizing bits.

WWJD: So you do better with someone coming out of school with a software background?

Hendrik Eeckhaut: If they are trained to do actual hardware design, they would need more training to work with us on the software.

WWJD: Where do you recruit from?

Hendrik Eeckhaut: Our engineering team is in Ghent, so it’s people living in the area.

WWJD: That is definitely a magical place to work.

Hendrik Eeckhaut: Yes, it’s really an advantage for us. Ghent is just the right size, and there’s an opera here. It’s close to everything to in Europe, and there’s an airport.

From time to time, there is incentive to move elsewhere, but now that everything is digital and online the incentive is less. The only problem at times is dealing with the different time zones with our customers.

WWJD: Why belong to the ESD Alliance, and not just Accellera?

Hendrik Eeckhaut: A company should not just belong to one consortium.

We are also part of other consortiums. We belong to the Eclipse Consortium, for instance, although we are much smaller than IBM, Google, or Microsoft.

Eclipse gives us our basic framework, and we add to that. If we want to improve the framework, we give that back to the community. In that way Eclipse keeps on improving, and everybody benefits.

It’s the same with the ESD Alliance. We hearken back to the ecosystem we are built upon, the EDA ecosystem. We know that if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together and everybody benefits.

We are not really in a hurry. If we want to continue to develop the best design environment, we have to work together with the ecosystem to get there.

WWJD: Are you able to go to any of the ESD Alliance meetings?

Hendrik Eeckhaut: Actually, our main event is DAC, although I run into people from the ESD Alliance at other events during the year. They have been very friendly.

WWJD: Do you attend DVCon Europe?

Hendrik Eeckhaut: We attend the US edition of DVCon.

In fact, we just got the news that one of my colleagues sent in a paper that was accepted. So next year, we won’t just have a booth, but also a technical demo. We are scaling this way, and doing more and more.

WWJD: Is it stimulating to be a small company among large companies, or is it difficult?

Hendrik Eeckhaut: [laughing] It depends on what day you ask me. Most of the time, it’s a great challenge, but when you’re tired it can be frustrating.

WWJD: Do you see a day when either Verilog or VHDL will not survive from lack of use?

Hendrik Eeckhaut: It’s still about 50-50 between Verilog and VHDL use, although it realty depends on where you are as to which is the most popular language.

In the US, people think it’s all SystemVerilog, but that’s not true. In the medical or space industries, even in the US, there is a higher chance of using VHDL. In consumer electronics, it’s more Verilog but there are no strict rules here.

VHDL and Verilog both have their strengths, so people will continue to use both.

WWJD: What language do you use to develop your tools?

Hendrik Eeckhaut: It’s Java, although we also use other languages. And a lot of frameworks help us move faster.

WWJD: Is there a place for open source in EDA.

Hendrik Eeckhaut: That’s a difficult question. We contribute and benefit from open source, but Sigasi is also closed source. Everything that we do contributes to open source, but the real core is where we make our money.

For example, Eclipse the framework is open source, but many people are doing closed source on Eclipse, so the ecosystem is complex. It’s hard to make a general statement about it, because both sides have their advantages. It all depends on the business model.

In certain areas, open source is the only solution. I recently had a discussion with people developing software for airplanes. That represents 50 years of support [in developing], and would not be possible to do with closed source. But each situation is completely different.

WWJD: Has anything funny ever happened to you in your career?

Hendrik Eeckhaut: I have actually thought of two things, both strange interactions at trade shows.

I was once giving a demo of Sigasi Studio at a trade show. The guy was really impressed and liked the idea.

After a while, he came back to our booth and said: ‘I’ve thinking about it, but I’m so used to Emacs and have used it for so long, I don’t think I will every switch to a different editor.’

He said it was too developed in his muscle memory, so you can imagine my surprise when I got back from the trade show to find that he had already bought a license for Sigasi Studio.

A second story: I was at a trade show talking to a customer, discussing some feature in our product and the way we tackle certain problems, when an acquaintance of the customer walked by.

The two of them started speaking in German, and I couldn’t really understand what they were saying. The first guy turned back to me and asked to use my demo PC, and he then gave a demo of our product to his acquaintance in German.

[laughing] I should have hired him right away!

WWJD: Do you enjoy your work?

Hendrik Eeckhaut: Yeah, I really do.

I started the company out of frustration. I was doing hardware design, and knew from software design that it could be a really smooth experience if you could express your solutions [more easily].

But for hardware design, things like Emacs and Vim were the only options and they were just text editors. With Sigasi Studio, I’m really proud of what we have built that offers a better alternative.

WWJD: What would be your number one piece of advice for hardware designers?

Hendrik Eeckhaut: I would say: Experiment more.

They are really at the frontier of the latest technology, and working on the newest stuff, but making mistakes can be very expensive, so they tend to be conservative in what they’re doing.

They don’t often question things that used to be true, but are not true any more. You need to keep putting question marks around certain things.

I would say: Technology moves, so you should try to experiment to do things better.

WWJD: The early bird, or early adopter, catches the worm?

Hendrik Eeckhaut: Belgium is really a small country squeezed between Germany and France, so we accept the good attitudes of both. I am German in my punctuality, but try to have a more relaxed attitude as well.

WWJD: Yes, my father was half German and always punctual. Not so much with my mother, who was rarely on time.

Hendrik Eeckhaut: [laughing] Yes, it’s always our parents’ fault.

Although now that I’m a parent, I can see how your world view could change on that.


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Bio…

“Hendrik Eeckhaut was always passionate about computers. When he was not breaking or fixing them, he was playing with his Legos or outside in the mud.

“He started his engineering studies in 1996 at Ghent University and got his master degree in Computer Science. He performed research on artificial intelligence and on design methodology for scalable video codecs, for which he received his PhD in Computer Science Engineering in 2008. You can find Hendrik Eeckhaut on ResearchGate.net, with 29 publications and 144 citations.

“In his downtime, he enjoys Belgian beers and the outdoors: cycling, running or working on his boulder-climbing skills.”

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