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How Far Has Design Automation Brought Us?

How Far Has Design Automation Brought Us?
by Tom Simon on 04-21-2017 at 12:00 pm

It’s always a struggle explaining electronic design automation (EDA) to people who ask me what field I am in. I have come up with simple and minimal descriptions – such as “software used for designing semiconductors.” This, of course, does little to provide any useful understanding to people who are not familiar with the field.

Sometimes I use the analogy of saying it is like Microsoft Word but for chips – chip designers need to capture the design in a program. It works nicely because Word also comes with grammar and spell checking – somewhat akin to simulation and physical verification. However vast worlds separate Word from the frequently arcane complexity of EDA.

I’ve been in the field since 1982, and have seen it develop and evolve in amazing and incredible ways. So many elements of our lives are resting on the accomplishments of the devices designed using EDA software. Since 1982 the complexity of semiconductors chips has grown from thousands of transistors to billions today. This scaling would not have happened without countless brilliant people working continuously.

The depth and complexity of each domain and sub field within the scope of EDA is hard to grasp. People working at one end of the design spectrum rarely deeply understand the other end. As a technology writer and analyst, I often must pull from a wide range of information about EDA technology. I was pleasantly surprised when I heard from Grant Martin, an old time co-worker from when I was at Cadence. He asked me to look over the latest edition of the Electronic Design Automation Handbook for IC System Design, Verification, and Testing. It is published by the CRC Press. As he had warned me, this two volume set is a weighty tome. Yet, this set does an impressive job of covering the field broadly and yet deeply.

It was originally published 10 years ago in 2006. Grant was one of the editors who marshalled the major update for 2016. There are over 40 technical contributors, who have written detailed technical articles on just about every corner of the chip design process. The first volume focuses on front end designed such as language based design, architecture specification, and higher levels of abstraction. Indeed, many of the updates to the handbook address changes in system specification and high level verification that have occurred over the last 10 years. The second even more substantial volume deals with everything from synthesis and schematic capture to lithography.

I decided to read up in the second volume on one of the topics that I had recently written about. Before I write an article I usually do background research to make sure that the technical points are properly covered. It’s pretty clear that had I referred to the handbook, it would have been much easier to pull together the detailed background information to help write a more informed piece. The content is well written and goes down to bedrock when it comes to the underlying theory and principles. As such it would be a very useful source of information for someone who wants to gain greater knowledge of the topics adjacent to their expertise.

I know we live in an age where books are being supplanted by online information. However, digging into a topic online often results in scattershot information. This handbook has even and thorough information. It is likely to remain close to my keyboard as a resource for future articles.

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