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Jobs’ Law

By Jim Hogan
Every year there seem to be a few prevailing themes that emerge in chip design and EDA around the mid-summer /post-DAC timeframe. Usually they revolve around some high-level design tool concept such as electronic system-level (ESL) design, some aspect of SoC power optimization or design for manufacturing (DFM), or a wave of tools being introduced in some ‘new’ area. This year the chatter was the least tool-centric as I can remember in recent memory, which may not necessarily be a bad thing. In fact, it actually may be a sign of maturity that the EDA industry is focusing on the big picture challenges faced by IC and system designers.

In my mind, that biggest challenge is all about the tremendous shift toward true system-on-chip (SoC) design. A year sometimes can make a huge difference. Yes, we’ve talked about SoC design for years, but it’s really starting to evolve to become the next layer of design abstraction. One proof point alone should make that clear: Microsoft talking about its SoC strategy at CES earlier this year. Who would have thought that a consumer software company could even spell SoC? But that’s the key behind the push toward more mainstream adoption of what we in the EDA industry have almost taken for granted. It’s all about consumer markets and it’s all about software applications. Interestingly, it appears the systems companies have realized it is the way to capture more value for them and allow for differentiation and exclusivity in their system products. No one understands this better than Apple.

Growing up in Silicon Valley I have witnessed much of the electronic revolution firsthand. The Apple story has been told by many. I recall the Steves starting Apple and the Apple II being what I considered an interesting toy. Steve Jobs had another vision. Jobs has always been a one step removed from me in my network. Lots of my contemporaries joined Apple as it grew, but I never really thought of it as an innovator. It assembled interesting bits and pieces from elsewhere, like the mouse and graphical UI. Steve left and started NEXT and my brother-in law joined them from SGI. He raved about the UI and the graphics ability. I was using Sun and SGI workstations at the time and tried a NEXT. It was a great UI but slow as hell when I loaded a design. Again I wrote it off as a toy.

As everyone knows, Jobs returned to Apple and made the NEXT OS and UI the Mac. The Mac is and was a huge success. It got some horsepower and was actually a great graphics workstation for creative things like media. He also launched the Newton PDA. It was a good idea but you couldn’t make it work worth a darn.

Jobs showed us all that computers were as much a fashion statement when he launched the Mac in designer colors.

I know a bit about the development of the iPod and it wasn’t so much a technical masterpiece as a collection of parts that Jobs saw as a way of servicing the consumer. I finally had to say he was the real deal when he launched iTunes and showed us all what the Internet can do in terms of creating and servicing consumer needs through a more efficient marketing approach.

Thus, after dismissing Apple and Jobs as a toy supplier, I think I finally have come to realize why Steve Jobs is indeed the master. I think we can coin a Jobs’ Law, a lot like we have Moore’s and Amdahl’s Laws. I believe that Jobs’ Law is that the user experience is never compromised. In other words Apple will, for example, spend more of its bill of materials costs on a display; all Apple devices communicate transparently with each other (turns out so do Samsung products too, hmm?); the devices themselves are stylish and handsome; and they act as portals to all the things a consumer could want.

How does Jobs’ Law affect what we do in SoCs? Let’s start at the handoff to SoC (what I’m trying to describe as SoC 3.0) or System Realization.

With SoC 3.0 software is king and programmability is the key, a departure from the hardware-focused era of gates-and-switches chip design. Application software defines the differentiated value of the system for the consumer.

It seems the industry has agreed a critical requirement is for software that runs for 1.5 seconds at boot time. The real time bio (bare metal software) is what allows the hardware and software world to interact. There were more than a few comments around that this year. My guess is next year at DAC we will be seeing more than a few people talking about that as the discussion moves to up to System Realization. But today’s problem is SoC realization, or the bridge from system level design to Silicon Realization (or, as many of us like to call it, EDA Classic).

Of course, the software still requires the underlying hardware, which is what makes the EDA and IP industries still very relevant. Especially when you look at the massive costs and development times required to develop an SoC. Higher-level design methods and design re-use are an absolute necessity and the IP industry will flourish as a result. But what we have seen at this year’s DAC, and really in the past year or so, is a realization (no pun intended) that the SoC methodology, as traditionally defined by the EDA supply chain, still needs work in order to deliver on the promise of SoC, thus rich with opportunities.

On one end, the detailed process for implementing complex designs in advanced silicon is well understood and is served adequately by traditional EDA tools and their tight connection to device physics and manufacturing. That’s not to say there aren’t some interesting challenges, especially as you get closer to silicon, but the core design methodology is in place, trusted and understood. These new tools will complement the needs of smaller and smaller process geometries. This remains the perfect storm for five-man startups.

On the other end, the process of conceptualizing and analyzing designs at a system level, a high level of abstraction and without the restrictions of physical operating constraints, is also a well-proven, albeit somewhat less rigidly defined area. Ideally, this system-level implementation would be available to software application developers before the SoC is actually manufactured to test and debug the software and uncover any SoC architectural problems.

Operating at these two different levels of abstraction, most often performed by two (at least) different sets of operations, introduces a variety of risks and design management challenges. The most fundamental challenge is ensuring that what is intended at the highest level of abstraction actually gets implemented in silicon by the steps performed at lower levels of detail. Thus ensuring architectural intent or convergence, making sure nothing gets “lost in translation,” is a major issue within the current SoC design flow.

This void has emerged as an under-served and emerging link called SoC Realization, where important system level information must be transformed to the next level of abstraction and analyzed; and functions assembled (both hardware and software) and implemented in an optimized way in silicon. It is here where an SoC has more degrees of optimization and critical decisions are made on issues such as which building blocks are used, what operating characteristics the SoC will have, and whether it will work as intended once committed to a silicon device. It is the cockpit for guiding the design from concept to implementation and ensuring design fidelity from one level to the next. SoC Realization represents the next natural and necessary step up in abstraction from existing EDA methodologies, and a necessary bridge from the more abstract world of system-level design that is helping drive SoC-enabled products.

Business models will likely change, as well. It isn’t a foregone conclusion that the EDA time-based licensing makes sense in SoC realization. The use of cloud computing will evolve in the next year. We may actually start to see software as a service (SaaS) that will become part of the SoC realization story in the next year. I think there are some ideal design tools for an application of the cloud. The cloud solutions out there today charge you $5/hour/computer. They charge a lot for data transfer. So applications that are a relatively small set of constraints/and inputs are ideal. You transfer a megabyte of information, during run time you create a terabyte of data on the cloud, and then you transfer back a megabyte of results. Good applications, for example, are field solvers that generate a ton of run time data to solve Maxwell’s equations, and applications that require no proprietary information on the cloud. At least for now that rules out things like SPICE because of the need for proprietary data like process rules.

For some it’s difficult to admit, but EDA “classic” has become a commodity business, a tool replacement exercise that by definition has to keep pace with IC complexity and Moore’s Law, but is a technology treadmill of incremental performance improvements with incremental innovative breakthroughs. And it may well end up in the hands of the foundries that can derive more value by linking it even closer to their manufacturing processes. This is ASIC model déjà vu all over again.

SoC Realization, on the other hand, has the potential to dramatically change how companies can leverage the vast potential of design re-use and the capacity of today’s leading-edge semiconductor processes. It is the link between the consumer systems companies like Apple, Samsung, LG, Microsoft, Oracle and others now jumping into the SoC game, and the IC providers charged with expanding their portfolio of expertise to include vertical-market domain software and system platforms that can scale with each new market their customers want to address.

Meanwhile, designers are currently left with ad-hoc and DIY methods for taking system-level design concepts and trying to transform them into viable SoC designs. As we have seen in the fabless era, lowering the design methodology enables the democratization of SoCs, thus filling fabs and shortening the product lifetime in the consumer market. This is a large, and growing, gap that needs to be filled with better automation and more efficient ways to ensure design fidelity between high-level representations and silicon implementation. This is a gap that represents a huge opportunity to fill. The question is by whom?

As with any kind of capitalist-driven market, commercial companies will emerge to fill the SoC Realization need. The IP market is alive and well, and will continue to evolve. But it needs this critical infrastructure for it to really flourish. This is where growth is going to come from in EDA as a business and hopefully allow it to capture more value.

The success of Apple under Steve Jobs underscores the opportunity for EDA companies who can drive innovation and change the status quo. I think we need to tip our hat to Steve Jobs for the innovator he truly is. Thanks, Steve, for making things interesting and being true to your vision and Jobs’ Law.

2 Responses to “Jobs’ Law”

  1. Jack Browne Says:

    Job’s Law makes sense – its about the user experience and this is how Apple creates end user value and loyalty

  2. Jim Hogan coins “Jobs Law” and nails it to the door of System and SoC Realization | EDA360 Insider Says:

    [...] read Jim Hogan’s full blog entry, click here. LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", "other"); [...]

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