By most estimates, long-term prospects for the electronics industry are positive. While global economies are forecast to grow around 4% annually through 2016, the electronics industry is expected to grow at 5.5% annually, to approach $2 trillion USD. And the semiconductor industry is forecast to grow even faster, at over 6% compounded annually through 2016 to over $400 billion.
However, it’s a different electronics industry than it was a few years ago. Today, software applications or “apps,” not silicon, have become the key differentiator in the eyes of the end user. Apps are practically everywhere— on your cell phone, on recent model TVs, and in your car. And apps are created not only by the manufacturer of a product, but by an ever-expanding community of apps users and developers.
The prevalence of apps is one of the key market trends driving electronics industry growth. One key app is video, which is driving growth in both devices and networks. Mobility is probably the most pervasive trend in electronics as consumers want lightweight, portable, connected devices they can take anywhere. Cloud computing is growing and is providing storage and access for more and more of our personal and business data. And “green tech” has become a requirement in order to save energy and maximize battery life.
All of these factors impact the way electronic systems are designed. For example, the importance of software apps calls for a much deeper integration of software and hardware development, which until very recently have been two very separate activities. Today, systems companies want not just semiconductors, but complete hardware/software systems ready for apps development and deployment. Semiconductor companies are increasingly expected to provide not just chips, but software ranging from device drivers to an operating system, middleware, and perhaps even reference applications.
The EDA industry, as a result, is changing and adapting. For the past 30 years, EDA has made the design and verification of increasingly complex semiconductors and systems possible. Now, EDA is moving beyond its historical hardware-only focus and developing new capabilities for hardware/software co-development and integration. Other essential capabilities include mixed-signal (analog/digital) design, low-power design, integration of existing silicon intellectual property (IP) onto systems-on-chip (SoCs), and high bandwidth, high-performance design. Let’s take a closer look at the five drivers mentioned above and their impacts on electronic design.
How Market Drivers Impact Design
Anyone who has a smartphone knows what an app is. Apps make it possible to play games, watch video, check the weather, get directions, surf the Internet, and much, much more. Apps on your TV might include Pandora, Netflix, and YouTube. But apps exist in less consumer-oriented markets as well. Apps in the mobile infrastructure could include data routing, deep packet inspection, and encryption/decryption.
Apps are opening up a new revenue stream for electronics manufacturers. In the old days, they would sell a product like a mobile phone or a TV and not derive any additional revenues from the customer until it’s time for the next upgrade. With apps, it’s possible to develop an ongoing revenue stream. Of course, many apps come from third-party providers and from users as well, creating thousands of new communities and marketplaces.
In a traditional development model, hardware is developed first and the software is developed later by a totally separate group of people. In an application-driven design approach, the apps drive many of the requirements for the hardware. Software and hardware development thus need to be on a more parallel path. This is giving rise to new EDA technologies such as virtual platforms, which allow early software development using software models of system hardware long before silicon is ready.
An increasing number of apps involve video—not just on TVs or PCs, but also on smartphones and other portable devices. Video requires considerable bandwidth and memory resources, which in turn puts new pressures on semiconductor and systems design. Overcoming the CPU-to-memory bottleneck has become critical. Video controllers and processors are increasingly located on SoCs, and they include analog circuitry, thus requiring new capabilities for mixed-signal SoC integration and verification.
The demand for mobility is increasing as consumers demand connectivity anywhere, anytime. They want lightweight, portable devices with long battery lives. And they want their experiences with handheld devices to be seamless, requiring a high level of integration among device, software, and network.
Small form factor, GHz-level performance, and low power are all important features for mobile devices. As such, manufacturers of mobile devices will be among the first to adopt the 20nm process node, which makes it possible to integrate billions of transistors on a single die. However, complexity and lithography challenges at 20nm pose new requirements for EDA tools and design teams. 20nm SoCs will be so complex that perhaps 80% of the content will be reused IP—and this in turn will require more EDA support for IP integration and verification. High-quality silicon IP must be available, especially for memories and complex interfaces.
Alternatively, some mobile devices will use three-dimensional integrated circuits (3D-ICs) to package multiple silicon dies stacked on top of each other. This arrangement can provide high bandwidth, low power, and integration of heterogeneous technologies such as analog, digital, and memory. But it requires an integrated methodology for analog and digital IC design, IC packaging, and printed circuit board (PCB) design.
With its use of large server farms, cloud computing may seem like the opposite of mobile computing, but in reality it’s interwoven with mobility, social media, and the “Internet of things.” Network servers and backbone equipment deliver much of the content and value to mobile devices. Some studies claim that the cloud needs to add a new server for every 600 or so smartphones that are added to the system.
Large server farms consume huge amounts of energy. Thus, low-power design is as important for cloud computing as it is for mobile devices. And that brings us to the fifth driver mentioned above: “green tech.” As energy grows more expensive and environmental concerns increase, the pressure for low-power design is growing. There’s also the very practical concern for battery life—no one wants to recharge their smartphone several times daily. Low-power design requires new circuit design techniques and power-aware EDA tools.
The Mobile Internet
A new technology wave that’s behind each of the five drivers is the emergence of the mobile Internet, which was spawned by the Apple iPhone in 2007. Previous waves included mainframe computing (1960s), mini-computers (1970s), PCs (1980s-1990s), and desktop Internet (2000s). Each wave has replaced a previous technology but has created a new and much larger market. And each wave has brought a 10x increase in the number of devices.
What most people don’t realize is that each of these technology waves was driven by the new semiconductors that enabled the wave. And that will be no less true for the mobile Internet. The iPhone would not have been successful without energy-efficient ARM processor cores or the GPRS/EDGE cellular baseband chips for high-speed communications.
Conclusion: A New EDA Era
The growth of the mobile Internet is great news for chip and systems makers, because new requirements drive design innovation. But it will place many additional demands on EDA suppliers, including support for hardware/software integration, mixed-signal design, low-power design, IP integration and verification, high bandwidth, 20nm processes, and 3D-IC packaging. Isolated “point tools” are giving way to integrated, end-to-end design and verification systems that provide a unified capability across analog, digital, packaging, and PCB domains. The EDA industry must change and adapt to enable the new technology that will shape the world of our future.
Lip-Bu Tan is the CEO of Cadence Design Systems