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25th Anniversary: Innovation Evolution Through One Customer's Eyes

Comments(2)Filed under: Cadence, EDA tool companies, EDA tools, EDA companies, Brian Fuller, electronics, embedded systems, computer processor, EDA vendors, computer architecture, IC design, circuit design, EDA software, 25th anniversary, computer design, analog design, Rainer Holzhaider, ams

Rainer Holzhaider has had a ringside seat to watch and participate in the electronics design revolution of the past four decades. The project manager for technology development and technical board member at ams AG (formerly Austria Mikro Systeme) has been with that company for 32 years, after collecting a degree in computer science from Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria, and a master's in computer engineering from Stanford.

As part of our coverage of Cadence's 25-year anniversary, I talked to this longtime customer (pictured below) by phone in Unterpremstätten, Austria, to get his perspective on the evolution of the industry, electronics design, EDA tools, and the future of electronics innovation.

Q: From your perspective, what's been the most surprising technology advancement you've seen in the past 25 years?

Holzhaider: After almost 50 years, Moore's Law is still intact. It was formulated in 1965 based on an observation in which Gordon Moore stated the number of components will double for at least another 8-10 years. Almost 50 years later that's still the case. It went from doubling every year to every18 months, but it's still intact. It will last another 8-10 years. This is a major thing.

In the context of ams, of course, sensor integration has been another major advancement. Magnetic sensor integration, MEMS microphones, opto sensors, ambient light sensing, to name a few. They basically added new features to an integrated system. That was significant.

Third technology advancement--which is also significant for ams and others--has been the whole topic of 3D integration. This is one of the reasons Moore's Law is intact. At ams, we started that in 2005. We've worked on it for almost a decade, and we have 3D products in production for more than three years. This was a very significant advancement for us. 3D integration is barely beyond infancy and has a very long way to go.

On the electronic design automation side? Complete top-down EDA systems and flows were a major advancement. Twenty-five years ago when Cadence was formed, it was more or less a collection of single tools. We'd gone beyond layout verification on a layout plot. Of course SPICE was around in analog. Designers were more artists than engineers. I guess there was a reason for Cadence to name their first integrated custom IC design solution "Analog Artist." In general, we've seen a lot of integration which has made the life of the engineer much easier. That was closely linked to the concept of handling complexity. Complexity is increasing every day. There had to be a concept that handled higher abstraction well and with that, hand in hand, went digital synthesis. That was a key advancement in 25 years. It enabled that paradigm shift: You could write code and let the tool translate it into gates and devices, rather than designing at device and gate level. That had a tremendous impact on productivity.

Q: What technology advancement were you looking forward to 25 years ago that either never came to pass or did so in a way you didn't expect?

Holzhaider: Something that advanced in a different way was a separation of technology spaces. Twenty-five years ago until 15 years ago, ams was a small company, always a little bit behind the bleeding edge of technology. But in the 1990s, we were still targeting to fall behind not more than one and a half to two process generations. This has changed completely in the last 10-15 years-this separation on the one hand of "More Moore" and "More than Moore" technologies. We're in the latter category. We're not in the leading-edge of digital technologies... we look at intelligently integrating additional components like sensors and delivering comprehensive solutions.

Here's another thing, and if you think back it isn't so much a surprise but it was unexpected for some: the "Gigahertz Race." In the 1990s, each new technology generation enabled a doubling of microprocessor speed. Think back 20 years, each new technology generation produced faster MPUs. Speed of computing in general went up. This suddenly stopped around 2005 at a process speed of 3-4 GHz. The reason? Power. Significant processor speed improvements at the expense of power simply became unfeasible. So we accelerated the concepts of parallelization, which of course requires software partitioning as well. Cadence APS is a good example. SPICE was not capable of running many threads in parallel but newer tools are able to do that.

Q: Talk a little bit about how ams anticipated or evolved in the context of the integration of analog and digital into single solutions.

Holzhaider: We found out very quickly that it wasn't digital as such or analog as such but how to handle the interfaces between the two. ams was always quite analog or mixed-signal centric. That's why in our environment methods like hardware acceleration simulators never really worked out well. Quickly we hit the boundaries to the analog world and then all of the digital speed-up didn't help. The complete mixed-signal toolsets and environments are a major achievement recently. Twenty-five years ago, we hoped that at least something would come up here. Over the years, ams has worked with a number of tool vendors to help advance the state of the art in the industry of the world.

Q: Talk about the company's evolution from ASIC to integrated solutions, and application-specific products.

Holzhaider: ams was founded more than 30 years ago as a joint venture between an American tech company, AMI (American Microsystems Inc.), an early ASIC company, and voestalpine AG, an Austrian steel company that wanted to diversify into electronics. We were founded as AMI Austria.

We started more or less as an ASIC company, but over time, we started to look into standard products. For about 15 years, we had basically one design department that served the whole customer space. But 15 years ago, we installed product lines and business units that allowed us to get into more specialization, more focus and do more evolutionary programs.

Ten years ago, we pushed into the ASSP arena. We had standard linear product lines, but we went more to the communication segment, which was more standardized than automotive or industrial segments. We tried more and more to not only rely on application-specific ICs but application-specific standard products, which we defined, developed, and placed in the open market. We always worked with a lead customer to develop those, so it wasn't a complete blind shot.

We're more specialized and focused on customers now. That enables us to be a lot more productive.  And we've benefitted from much more powerful electronic design automation based on more powerful workstations and computers.

Q: Where do you see technology evolving in the next 10-15 years?

Holzhaider: We try to keep in mind the big picture--where do we want to go as a company? We want to contribute, to produce electronics systems that serve megatrends. One key trend is mobility. It could be mobile health for aging people, general mobile society, autonomous electric cars. These are what we have in mind. For ams, that means more sensor integration. We integrate quite a few sensors already, including ambient light, proximity, and magnetic positioning sensors. Sensing technologies for gases and fluids is an area of growing importance.

In the digital world I think overall we'll see more 3D integration. There's more to be done with active interposers and also 3D integration the way ams does it. It has many facets. The kind of integration we do is completely different than what companies do when they stack memories on CPUs with interposers. The common denominator is that we are all going beyond the X-Y optimization and moving in the Z direction.

In analog world, we'll see more process optimization toward better process technologies. Feature size is not so much the key, compared with power consumption, leakage, or noise performance. Of course for leading-edge CMOS technologies, I think the signs are getting more that indicate CMOS will sooner or later meet its final boundaries. Then we'll need to talk about technologies like optical computing or organic materials, and there's a wide field to explore there.

Q: What do you need to see from your EDA vendors to keep your engineering teams more productive?

Holzhaider: With ams, we have a unique approach to 3D integration and we can sort of handle that from the development point of view. Generally we are starting to offer this 3D technology to the outside world. I think a 3D business process for non-IDMs is one big challenge for the years to come. For example, how do you enable a fabless company to start designing and making use of 3D technology? Different parts of the technology will come from different vendors. It will be a challenge when it comes to the methodology, the collaboration. Whose fault is it when the system fails? How do you test the whole system? This will require a substantial effort.  

Q: What advancements in design automation technology would you like to see in the coming years?

Holzhaider: Certainly an integrated analog-mixed signal environment was key. Digital synthesis was, of course, a major step. What we really gained was, as the analog and digital worlds got closer together, more comprehensive design environments emerged. When we were founded 30 years ago, our parent company AMI was a big player. Like other big companies, they had their own in-house design automation department. So we used AMI proprietary tools. It was then that the first workstation companies came out -- Daisy, Mentor, and Valid, and only Mentor is around today. The formation of Cadence was a major step in our analog-centric mixed-signal world.

The decision we took in the ‘90s to go with Cadence as a comprehensive tool supplier was a key decision for ams. Overall, it has been a good decision. We've had our challenges and discussions, but altogether we've fared well.

Going forward, ESL and higher-level design abstraction is a big topic, of course. But I have to say at ams, due to our "More than Moore" specialization, it is not our key issue. The processes that we're integrating are sometimes mature and older technologies, but we're not at that top level where hardware-software partitioning is our key issue. Of course when you're talking systems that are maybe barely possible at 28nm and force you do 20 or 14nm, then in the billion-gate arena it's a key issue.

In our environment, we have different priorities. If we can improve signal-to-noise level by a factor of two, or if we can decrease leakage or improve matching a little bit, then that may have a much higher impact on our business than talking about system partitioning.

Take a MEMS microphone, for example. We shipped over one billion pieces of MEMS microphone amplifiers last year. An advancement of a few percent in sensitivity or leakage may have quite a significant impact to our bottom line.

Brian Fuller

Related stories:

-- 25th Anniversary: Hogan on EDA History and Three Little Words

-- Video: Cadence Founder Jim Solomon on Company History, and What EDA Needs Today

-- 25 Years of Innovation: Then, Now, and the Road Ahead



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