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IBM Design Tools in the Cloud: Big News or Old News?

IBM Design Tools in the Cloud: Big News or Old News?
by Paul McLellan on 06-19-2015 at 7:00 am

 One announcement that I missed coming up to the Design Automation Conference last week was that SiCAD is hosting a portfolio of IBM’s design automation tools in the cloud. Supposedly these are priced half the cost of similar capability from Cadence, Synopsys and Mentor. So should the big three be worried? Is this an earth-shattering event?

The press release opens:IBM today announced that it is launching IBM High Performance Services for Electronic Design Automation (EDA), the electronic industry’s first enterprise-class, secure cloud service, which provides on-demand access to electronic design tools, in partnership with SiCAD, Inc., a Silicon Design Platform provider, with expertise in EDA, design flows, networking, security, platform development, and cloud technologies.

So the 50,000 foot view of what is being offered is:

  • Access to IBM-patented EDA tools
  • Bundled with Platform LSF on IBM Softlayer
  • Charged by consumption based on pay-as-you-go model
  • Offered through SiCAD’s Virtual Design Center Platform

IBM has always had some of the most advanced design tools, and they have relied correspondingly little on 3rd party tools. Their own place and route, timing engine, synthesis engine, analysis and so on. It is not quite clear exactly which tools will be available in the end, they say that this initial announcement is just a start, but certainly their library characterization tool, logic verification tool and its own SPICE simulator.

I see four big problems.

The first problem is the one that we had at Compass Design Automation, when we spun it out from VLSI Technology. Despite the fact that our tools were supposedly technology independent, the reality was that they were much more intertwined with our own libraries and with VLSI’s process technology. VLSI used external foundries too, and other customers such as LG in Korea used our whole portfolio in their own fab with a completely different process. Nonetheless, lots of things break when you see things that you have never seen before. For example, IBM does all its server design on SOI, which it manufactures in its Fishkill fab. But nobody else does high performance designs on IBM’s process. That may change one GlobalFoundries gets the fab and can make the foundry available to others.

The second problem is that companies have been very reluctant to use cloud-based solutions for semiconductor design, except in niche areas like Nimbic. There are two reasons for this. One is the perceived “putting the crown jewels on the internet” effect. If Target can lose all its customer data, and the OPM can lose all the federal employee data, including security clearance data, and Snowden can walk off with half the NSA’s secrets, then this is not seen as a trivial risk. I’m sure the Chinese military would love to have Intel’s latest processor mask data, or TSMC’s 10nm process recipes, or Qualcomm’s latest modem. That’s why you don’t find those things out in the cloud.

Another cloud issue is that IC designs are large. So moving them in and out of the cloud is time consuming, and unless all the tools required are there (they are not) then this is a necessity. For some applications, such as library characterization which can involve tens of thousands of SPICE runs, I can see the attraction of the cloud. Relatively small amounts of data, large computational load, almost unlimited parallelism, LSF to handle it all.

The third problem is that this is the second (or maybe third) time that IBM has tried to commercialize its design tools. Remember BooleDozer and Einstimer. They might even have been the best synthesis tool and the best timing engine (Ambit’s timing engine was written by the same person, and it was clearly the best engine of its era). But IBM were not successful in the market. They tried to sell through distribution, so that probably contributed to the lack of success, but was not on its own not fatal.

The fourth problem is the usage-based pricing. If the price is low enough to be attractive to large companies that means that running hundreds of copies of a tool 24-hours a day needs to be cheaper than buying permanent (or time-based) licenses. But if the price is set this low then there is almost no revenue from the small and medium sized companies that is the explicit focus of the announcement. If, on the other hand, the price is set high enough to get interesting revenue from the medium sized companies it will not be of interest to the larger ones. There are probably ways to solve this but it has been one of the problems whenever EDA companies have toyed with usage-based pricing. The EDA company is only interested if the revenue is higher, and the customer is only interested if it is lower. At least in this case, since IBM does not have existing business to protect, that dynamic might not matter.

We will have to wait and see what happens as more tools become available and whether:With the cloud service, clients no longer need to purchase EDA tool licenses, new hardware, data center infrastructure or staff to manage on-premise environments. IBM High Performance Service for EDA provides high performance tools, security and overall improved price performance offering customers of all sizes more affordable access to EDA tools and decreased cost of designs.

SiCAD’s website, including the press release is here. An “end of EDA as we know it” article worth reading is here.

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