Earlier this year, when I was looking at Carbon’spast year performance which provided record breaking revenue with whopping jump in bookings, one thing was certain that Carbon Performance Analysis Kits (CPAKs) would drive major growth in future, not only for Carbon, but also for the semiconductor industry. It will initiate a new chapter in the semiconductor system design era where a pre-built virtual prototype can be customized with various IPs and interconnect according to a designer’s need and downloaded from the cloud for performance analysis and optimization of a complete SoC; the designer can be up and running the analysis on the virtual prototype within minutes of download. That’s the kind of productivity CPAKs were already providing to their existing users; now Carbon is going a step further by featuring these CPAKs in a new easily searchable web portal and enabling their partners to create and publish their own CPAKs there as well. Carbon System Exchange promises to make it much easier and faster to start getting value from CPAKs.
Before I delve into my conversation with Bill Neifert from Carbon Design Systems, on how this initiative will unleash the huge potential of system design among a larger semiconductor community across the world, let me provide a brief about the Carbon System Exchange portal. It’s a web based platform where designers can find pre-built virtual prototype systems containing IP (MCUs, Processors, Interconnect, etc.) and s/w from several vendors. They can search for the particular combination of components that most closely matches their design needs, download pre-built systems and even request customization of CPAKs. Once downloaded, the CPAKs can be easily modified or extended using Carbon’s SoC Designer Plus virtual prototype together with models from Carbon’s IP Exchangeweb portal, models of their own RTL compiled with Carbon Model Studio or SystemC models of their own creation. Then they can quickly run the system with accuracy and speed and optimize their SoC realistically within various resource constraints under different workloads.
This is a significant step for SoC design community and hence it prompted me to have a nice conversation with Bill on business model and future visibility on how this initiative can make virtual prototyping ubiquitous. Here is the conversation –
Q: Bill, Carbon System Exchange is a nice initiative like IP Exchange earlier. IP Exchange is very popular now with more than 5000 IPs turnover. How do you see the System Exchange scaling?
A: Actually, we came up with the idea for Carbon System Exchange based upon the success of CPAKs on Carbon IP Exchange. Since we first introduced CPAKs at DAC in 2013 we’ve experienced tremendous demand for them with over 1000 downloaded so far. In response, we’ve greatly increased the number of CPAKs that we offer and have numerous combinations of leading IP and software available. Searching for the CPAK that most closely matches your own design was difficult on a portal focused on models however so we decided to roll out a new portal to simplify this search. We’ve been staging this over the past couple of months to prove things out before we announced the portal and have been very pleased by how CPAK traffic is continuing to increase.
Q: Carbon System Exchange needs more commitment from IP and sub-system providers. Although you have good number of customers and partners already joined, what is your assessment of a larger community joining the initiative?
A: The ecosystem of IP, systems and software providers which System Exchange enables is one of the most exciting aspects of the new portal. Historically, all of the CPAKs which Carbon offers have been created exclusively by Carbon. We’ve helped numerous other companies supply virtual prototypes out to their customers but it hasn’t been done in an easily scalable or repeatable way. With System Exchange, we now have the mechanisms in place to easily enable partner companies to offer their own CPAKs and leverage the substantial infrastructure investments and partnerships that Carbon has in place to handle the important things like security, authorization and validation.
With System Exchange, we’re working with companies like Brekerand Kozio to help showcase how their software verification solutions can leverage the speed and accuracy of our virtual prototypes to help make their customers be productive more quickly. These partnerships arise because of the system perspective that is being delivered with CPAKs. Obviously, there is a substantially larger pool of IP, systems and software providers which can be tapped to expand System Exchange and we’re working on that now. We intentionally limited the number of partners in the initial rollout to make sure we got the initial infrastructure tooling done properly. You can expect to see additional announcements as we continue to add partners who want to showcase their system capabilities leveraging the speed and accuracy which we provide.
Q: How about small low cost systems? If you visualize the future growth in IoT space, that will need high volume, low cost systems; can they get benefit out of this System Exchange portal?
A: IoT poses a unique problem in some ways. Virtual prototypes are typically thought of adding value to the large, complex chips driving mobile phones, servers and networking equipment. IoT devices tend to be much simpler but any device which connects to the internet has to worry about a number of complex security and networking issues together with a constant push to reduce power consumption. In addition, since these products are typically going into a consumer marketplace, they’ll likely do so with huge price and time to market pressures. These are many of the same concerns that have traditionally driven innovation in the virtual prototype space and we envision the same thing with IoT. We’ve already seen some good customer traction here and expect even more as the space continues to mature.
Q: This is definitely a unique service idea utilizing the SaaS concept. How did you get such a novel idea, first with IP Exchange and now with System Exchange?
A: Honestly, this is truly an area where necessity was the mother of invention. When we first started generating instrumented models of ARM IP the entire process was manual. We would send a spreadsheet full of model options out to the end user and ask them to specify the configurations that they needed for each model. Almost every single time we did this, we would get back a request for something not supported by the underlying RTL. As you know, sometimes when you choose one option, it changes the availability of other options, etc. We had a tough time representing all of these trade-offs in the spreadsheet and the end user typically didn’t know all of the trade-offs either. This led to a lot of frustration and iteration as we arrived at the correct models for the user. This led us to automate the process using IP Exchange which basically took all of the configuration options and put them into a simple series of questions. Each question impacts the available answers to all the following questions. This way, we only enable the user to create models that are supportable by the underlying RTL. The fantastic side-benefit of this is we greatly reduced the amount of time required to create a model. It’s now less than an hour in most cases from the time the user clicks the “Build” button until the download link appears in their inbox. It also means we can manage these models for them so they can either download them again later or modify the configuration to generate a follow-on model. Since design is an iterative process, it’s not unusual for a single user to create multiple configurations of a single model to analyse the impact on the system. With IP Exchange, the user can do these 24 hours a day, 7 days a week which is important since we have users around the globe.
System Exchange is the natural extension of IP Exchange and reflects a lot of the trends that we’re all seeing in the market. First and foremost, designers don’t want to spend their time creating virtual prototypes; they want to spend their time using virtual prototypes. CPAKs enable this by providing extensible systems and software which often closely match their needs. Our users quickly started pushing us for additional CPAKs though and the sheer numbers of CPAKs available for certain IP blocks started ramping up quickly. For example, as of the end of September, 2014 we have 29 different CPAKs which incorporate the ARMCoreLink CCI-400 interconnect. The chances are good that at least one of those systems comes close to the starting point desired by our end user. Which one though? System Exchange lets them narrow this down quickly to the right system that meets their needs.
In the paragraph above, replace CCI-400 with Linux, or a processor or some other combination of components and you can see how the ability to narrow down the broad range of choices to the system that best meets your needs is an extension of IP Exchange that just makes sense.
Q: Do you see more such portals coming up in future, either by Carbon or other vendors?
A: I think that System Exchange has a huge amount of potential for future expansion so that’s likely where you’ll see us spending our energy on portals in the short to medium term. With the broad array of possibilities available with IP, systems and software providers we could easily see the number of pre-built systems quickly scaling into the hundreds or even thousands.
I don’t know how easy it would be for others to replicate what we’ve done. Carbon has some pretty unique characteristics that enable us to do what we do. We’ve been able to use our model generation capability to forge IP partnerships with the leading IP providers and leverage those partnerships to create systems. We’re unique here in that we don’t compete against any of our IP partners by offering any of our own IP. I think the combination of model generation capability combined with our partnerships makes this type of portal pretty unique. There are definitely other portals out there but only ours gives the users the ability to access virtual prototypes containing the critical link to system accuracty.
This was a great interaction with Bill and a new learning for me. I find this to be a significant step in system design and virtual prototyping for SoCs that improves designer productivity to a large extent and shortens time-to-design, thus easing and strengthening the design flow from system level. Looking at the nice quotes from several of Carbon’s customers and Ecosystem Partners (who already have their IPs on the Carbon System Exchange portal) in the press release, I firmly believe this initiative is going to proliferate in a big way in the semiconductor design community and a game changer in ESL space.