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My 25-Year Design Automation Conference Retrospective

Comments(0)Filed under: EDA, Industry Insights, DAC, CAE

Last week at the Design Automation Conference, it dawned on me that since the first Design Automation Conference I attended was in 1985, this is my 25th DAC. Both the conference and the EDA industry have seen major changes since that time – and they’re still going on.

1985 was one of the first years that DAC had exhibits, and the exhibit floor was small and by today’s standards. At the time, I was just starting to cover a new industry called “CAE” (computer-aided engineering) for Computer Design magazine. CAE was mostly about gate-level schematic capture and logic simulation. The “big three” were Daisy, Mentor, and Valid. In the mid-1980s, they were starting to get into IC and PCB physical design, then (and sometimes now) referred to as “CAD.” They successfully overtook the incumbents in this space – Applicon, Calma, and Computervision – and someone subsequently invented the term “EDA” to refer to CAE plus CAD.

Over the years, hundreds of new vendors appeared at various DACs, and just as many disappeared or were acquired. The era of Daisy, Mentor and Valid gave way to the era of Cadence, Synopsys and Mentor. RTL synthesis and Verilog replaced gate-level schematics, formal verification appeared, and system-level design has been the “next big thing” since about, say, 1992. At DAC, booths got bigger and flashier, giveways more extravagant, and the exhibit floor took on more of a carnival atmosphere. Members of the press and analysts were treated (subjected?) to numerous breakfasts, lunches, extravagant dinners, and special perks like Las Vegas shows, Disneyland jaunts, and New Orleans jazz. There was a technical conference program too, but who had time?

Nowadays, in keeping with the times, things are a little more muted. Much of the exhibit floor now consists of demo suites filled, hopefully, with actual customers. The giveaways aren’t as fancy and there isn’t as much of a party atmosphere, except, of course, at the annual Denali party. Some of the attendees I spoke to this year were looking for jobs or clients.

It seems to me there are fewer startups and fewer big product announcements than before, and certainly less press coverage, although a lot more blogs. No blockbuster announcements this year – nobody got sold, bought, or sued, no “breakthroughs” in standards efforts, no new industry consortia to solve all our problems.

EDAretro1                While attendance sometimes seemed a little sparse out on the exhibit floor this year, I noticed that the keynote speeches were packed. DAC offered a good program of pavilion panels and regular panels, in addition to this year’s User Track and user-focused Management Day. DAC started in 1964 as a conference, and perhaps the focus is shifting back a little such that people realize there’s also a conference going on.

This year I was honored to be asked by EDA veteran Doug Fairbairn, who presented an insightful “EDA retrospective” Monday morning at DAC, to come up on stage with analyst Gary Smith and comment on his talk. I didn’t have any real critiques, although I noted that system-level design has been around as long as I have (having covered companies like Endot and SilcSyn in the mid-1980’s), and that EDA really started with CAD rather than CAE. I also took issue with those who complain that there is “nothing new and exciting” in EDA. I commented that I’ve seen a lot of “new and exciting” things come and go, as designers resisted unproven, revolutionary methodology changes.
Doug Fairbairn presents as Gary Smith (left) and I look on.

So, maybe instead of “new and exciting,” we need to focus on pragmatic, evolutionary changes that build from current strengths. For example, as I’ve written previously, we can step up to transaction-level modeling (TLM) rather than step down from some new proprietary language with no connection to implementation. And if DAC becomes a little less “exciting” with toned-down exhibits, fewer big announcements, cheaper giveaways, and an invigorated conference program with some good content for EDA users, that’s quite all right.

For another long-time perspective on DAC and EDA, see the blog written by my colleague Dan Holden, who works in PR here at Cadence. Dan talks about the amazing progress that’s been made in design productivity over the years, and notes that even in these times of recession, EDA “holds an important key to economic revitalization.” Now this is where we can find the “excitement” in EDA. It’s about a contribution that’s been there all along and continues to impact society in a profound way.

Richard Goering

Note: For a look back at the first DAC in 1964, see my recent blog.

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