Sunday, January 11, 2015

HW - SW : Yes, Steve Jobs was right!

The start of the year marked another step forward towards the NEXT BIG THING in semiconductor space with a fleet of companies showcasing interesting products at CES in Las Vegas. In parallel, the VLSI conference 2015 at Bangalore also focused on Internet of Things with industry luminaries sharing their views and many local start-ups busy demonstrating their products. As we march forward to enable everything around us with sensors, integrating connectivity through gateways and associated analytics in the cloud, the need for lower form factors, low power, efficient performance and high security at lowest possible cost in limited time is felt more than ever. While there has been a remarkable progress in SoC development targeting these goals, the end product landing with the users doesn’t always reflect the perceived outcome. What this means is, we are at a point where HW and SW cannot work in silos anymore and they need multiple degrees of collaborations.

To enable this next generation product suites, there is a lot of debate going around the CLOSED & OPEN source development. Every discussion refers to the stories of Apple vs Microsoft/Google or iOS vs Android etc. While an open source definitely accelerates development in different dimensions, we all would agree that some of the major user experiences were delivered in a closed system. Interestingly, this debate is more philosophical! At a fundamental level, the reason for closed development was to ensure the HW and SW teams are tightly bound – a doctrine strongly preached by Steve Jobs. From an engineering standpoint, with limited infrastructure available around that time, a closed approach was an outcome of this thought process. Today, the times have changed and there are multiple options available at different abstraction levels to enable close knitting of HW and SW. 

To start with, the basic architecture exploration phase of partitioning the HW and SW can be enabled with the virtual platforms. With the availability of high level models one can quickly build up a desired system to analyze the bottlenecks and performance parameters. There is work in progress to bring power modelling at this level for early power estimation. A transition to cycle accurate models on this platform further enables early software development in parallel to the SoC design cycle. 

Once the RTL is ready, the emulation platforms accelerate the verification cycle by facilitating the testing to be carried out with the external devices imitating real peripherals. This platform also enables the SW teams to try out the code with the actual RTL that would go onto the silicon. The emulators support performance and power analysis that further aid in ensuring that the target specification for the end product is achieved. 

Next, the advancements in FPGA prototyping space finally gives the required boost to have the entire design run faster ensuring that the complete OS can be booted with use-cases running much ahead of the Si tape-out providing insurance to the end product realization.

This new generation of EDA solutions are enabling the bare metal software development to work in complete conjunction with the hardware thereby exploiting every single aspect of the later. It is the verification team that is morphing itself into a bridge between the HW and SW team enabling the SHIFT LEFT in the product development cycle. While the industry pundits can continue to debate over the closed vs open philosophy, the stage is all set to enable HW SW co-development in a given proximity under either of these cases.

As Steve Jobs believed, the differentiation between a GOOD vs GREAT product is the tight coupling of the underlying HW with the associated SW topped with simplicity of use. Yes, Steve Jobs was right and today we see technology enabling his vision for everyone!

Wish you & your loved ones a Happy and Prosperous 2015!

Disclaimer: The thoughts shared are an individual opinion of the author and not influenced by any corporate.

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