May 29, 2008

is this thing on...?

Thomas J. Watson, the president of IBM, once famously didn't say that I think there is a world market for maybe five computers. He is still widely quoted as having said it and it is usually trotted out as a good example of why we shouldn't make predictions about the future of technology. Mainly because those predictions almost always will make us look entirely foolish. The title of this blog is based on that quote, in the hope that it'll discourage me from making too many painful statements about what I think the future of EDA and verification might be, but that's what this blog is going to be about.

Electronic design automation and functional verification are two pieces of the puzzle aiming to help close the design gap in the semiconductor industry. That's the gap between the amount of transistors we can put on a piece of silicon and the amount of transistors we can usefully put together to produce a working system that does something useful, in a reasonable period of time. The device physics guys have done a great job of getting well ahead of what we can usefully design. The main gap doesn't really seem to be what can be designed, though. It is what can be tested and verified to actually do what it is supposed to do.

There are more challenges further down the pipe too, timing closure looms ever larger as a problem, further reduction in geometries threaten the basic assumptions that let us typically ignore the nasty analog reality and pretend we are in some digital fantasy of ones and zeros. Those are all big problems or at least getting bigger, but functional verification is swallowing vast amounts of engineering time on projects right now and we seem to be getting ever further behind the curve. ( I feel already that I've made two potential 5 computers kind of statements in just this one paragraph.) EDA tools keep promising great leaps forward, but we still seem to be seeing the same promises and not so much progress. Raising the abstraction level of the design languages, increasing the quality of the verification, more reuse and large amounts of money invested in creating IP, but largely the industry still appears to be where it was 10 years ago - just with more people working ever harder on each product.

The one saving grace in all this is that there is quite the demand for semiconductor devices. If you start counting up all the computers, portable devices, smart cars and embedded processors in use around your life, you'll probably quite quickly realise you've maxed out that world market for 5 computers all on your own. In fact it is probably closer to 50 computers or computing devices in use around you. So at least the demand for products is there, even if we aren't quite sure how to design them all effectively, yet.

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