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What is the Current State of ESL Tools?

In preparing for this panel I had a conversation with Gary Smith. As usual Gary was quite helpful and discussed the most likely growth path for the ESL market as well as the underlying factors that will catalyze the growth. His contributions will be the subject of a follow up article later this month. The bottom line is that ESL is dynamic and adapting to the requirements of the development of complex systems, both as IC’s and as complete systems.

This month’s panelists were Brett Cline from Forte Design Systems, Jon McDonald from Mentor Graphics, Bill Neifert from Carbon Design Systems, and Frank Schrrmeister of Cadence.

Their pictures and short biographies follow the body of the article.

SLD: Is ESL (Electronic System Level) terminology obsolete in the context of complex integrated systems?

Frank Schrrmeister: No, the term ESL is still very valid. The “S” in ESL can stand for either “Software” or “System”. The scope of what a system represents is important, as well as the engines used to perform system and software related tasks.

A complex system can be a chip as well as a component in its system environment. Most often various types of software are executing on processing engines within the chip, and communicate through complex interconnect and peripherals to other components at the board level.

In the past, ESL has often been defined as “everything happening before RTL”. In reality, ESL overlaps heavily with verification, so one may suggest an extension of ESL being “everything happening until RTL is signed off and verified.” The reason for that becomes clear when considering a chip-development flow.

The flow generally encompasses the development hierarchy from IP blocks through sub-systems and the actual SoC together with the software hierarchy running on top of the chip. The key take away here is that after about 60% of the time of the project has elapsed, all relevant system and software dependencies have to be identified and verified, otherwise the chip is at risk to either not accurately execute the software or not work correctly within its system environment.

The traditional pre-RTL and RTL based decisions are blending and overlapping more and more, so the handover to silicon implementation, i.e. RTL being fully verified, is really the time at which all ESL questions have to be answered.

Brett Cline: ESL isn’t obsolete because it was insufficiently defined in the first place. Certainly, ESL can be cleverly used to encompass whatever one’s needs are and that is exactly what has been done.

ESL can be anything from the complete definition of an airplane’s electronic systems, a telephone system, an SoC, or even an FPGA with software. Why not? They are all electronic systems. For hardware design, Forte has used ESL to describe the abstraction level above RTL. We’ve also called the same level of abstraction behavioral level.

SLD: Is there a demand for heterogeneous system development tools?

Jon McDonald: There is a strong need for each tool to have the ability to interact with representations from other design spaces. Engineering disciplines have been compartmentalized for a long time to address significant issues in system complexity. Each discipline needs development tools focused on reducing the complexity of that domain. Forcing heterogeneous system development tools results in reducing the capabilities of the tools across the board, while enabling the tools in each discipline to communicate with tools in connected areas has the potential to tremendously increase the value of the analysis in each design discipline without compromising the effectiveness of the individual tools. There is a need for heterogeneous communication of information between system development tools, there is not a need, and I believe it would be ineffective, to attempt to create heterogeneous system development tools.

Bill Neifert: Like it or not, software can have a significant impact on the behavior of the system. Far too often, hardware decisions are made with no real data from the software team and software teams are forced to live with decisions the hardware team made without their input.

A heterogeneous tool providing value to both the hardware and software team enables much earlier design collaboration and the capability to deliver an overall system product much better suited to the needs of the market. This is reflected in the way engineering teams are built today. I used to regularly attend customer meetings where the hardware and software engineers were meeting each other for the first time. That doesn’t seem to happen much anymore as the makeup of the engineering teams themselves becomes more heterogeneous. Tools must evolve to keep up with the changing demographics of their target user base.

SLD: How could EDA companies expand their role to integrate non-electronic components in a system?

Brett Cline: Integrating non-electronic components could help more accurately model the system prior to construction with obvious benefits. There are plenty of tools and technologies available to help model the non-electronic portions of a system. At some point, the tool flow becomes extremely complex and modeling the entire system becomes prohibitively expensive or difficult. Should EDA companies choose to tackle this problem, the getting the tool flow and integration will be paramount to being successful.

Jon McDonald: By creating standard interfaces for passing relevant information into the EDA tool domains, we allow the individual tools to leverage the expertise and accuracy present in other domains. Similar to the previous question, ‘Is ESL terminology obsolete?’ I think EDA terminology is obsolete. EDA companies, Mentor specifically, have dramatically expanded their product portfolio to address disciplines outside the traditional EDA tool space. In my experience, Mentor is maintaining the capabilities of each of the tools in its intended domain and leveraging the communication of domain specific knowledge by passing appropriate information to tools in other design disciplines.

SLD: One often hears “we do not know this market” as a justification to stick to electronics. If so how is EDA to grow in the ESL segment?

Bill Neifert: These two questions seem interrelated, so I’ll answer them together. If EDA is going to be successful selling to non-hardware folks, it needs to stop treating them like hardware folks.

Hardware users pay large amounts of money for software that has to be configurable enough to meet the needs of the next generation of ever-growing hardware designs. Software users don’t tend to need this configurability –– they’re not changing the hardware, just using it –– but they need something easy to use and at a much lower price point. Far too often, however, EDA vendors tend to try to sell the same tools to software designers that they sell to hardware engineers and this creates a fundamental value mismatch. EDA won’t be successful selling to software teams until it can create a need for software teams to use the EDA solutions and when the EDA vendor is capable of providing them at a cost software designers can afford.

For example, in the virtual prototype space, the software user wants something fast and free on a per-use basis. The hardware user needs something accurate and configurable to enable design exploration. Some vendors address this by selling two different products, one aimed at software designers and another at hardware engineers, eliminating a lot of the collaboration value inherent to virtual prototypes. Carbon has a single tool that can be used by the hardware team to optimize its systems and then automatically creates the system used by the software team.

The software team gets value because it has a fast model suited for its needs at a software team price point. The hardware team gets value because the software team is now running on the same representation of the hardware that it’s using for design.

This approach works to expand the market because we’re enabling the hardware team to expand the market for us. EDA companies with their expensive direct sales forces aren’t built well to address the price points required by software teams. By enabling the hardware team to deliver a valuable solution to the software team, we’re getting them to do our sales work for us, to the benefit of all involved.

Fundamentally, this is a business model challenge as much as it is a technical one. Trying to apply the EDA business model and cost structure to address software users’ needs will not work and has not worked. The cost of selling and developing leading-edge EDA tools is expensive and reflected in the cost of the tools.

Software teams are much larger than hardware teams, so they are a potentially lucrative market that could be tapped, even at a much lower price point. They must be sold to in a much more cost efficient way, however. By selling a product with a built-in distribution mechanism to enable the hardware team to easily support the needs of the software team, EDA companies can continue selling to their primary hardware users while enabling the much larger software community.

Frank Schrrmeister: Fact is that the core customers of EDA – the semiconductor houses – have taken on over the last two decades huge amounts of additional expertise as part of their developments. Where a set of drivers and a partnership with operating system vendors may have been enough 15 years ago, today the same vendors have to provide chips with reference ports of Android, Linux, Chrome OS and Windows Mobile just to win the socket. We all have to learn and deal with the aspects of those adjacent markets as they increasingly simply become a “must Deal with” for existing EDA customers.


cline_brettBrett Cline is vice president of Marketing and Sales for Forte Design Systems. Before joining Forte in 1999, he was director of Marketing at Summit Design, where he managed both the verification product line, including HDL Score, and marketing communications. Cline joined Summit through its acquisition of Simulation Technologies in 1997. He has held positions in development, applications, and technical marketing at Cadence Design Systems and General Electric. Cline holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from Northeastern University in Boston, Mass.


macdonald_jonJon McDonald is a Senior Technical Marketing Engineer at Mentor Graphics. He received a BS in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Carnegie Mellon and an MS in Computer Science from Polytechnic University. He has been active in digital design, language-based design and architectural modeling for over 15 years. Prior to joining Mentor Graphics, Mr. McDonald held senior technical engineering positions with Summit Design, Viewlogic Systems and HHB Systems.


neifert_billBill Neifert is CTO and vice president of Business Development at Carbon Design Systems. A Carbon cofounder, he has 13 years of electronics engineering experience with more than 10 years in EDA, including C-Level Design and QuickTurn Systems. Neifert has designed high-performance verification and system-integration solutions, and developed an architecture and coding style for high-performance RTL simulation in C/C++. He has a Bachelor of Science degree and a Master of Science degree in Computer Engineering from Boston University.

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