Electronic Design heads to the Cloud

Article by Karan Kirpalani

Cloud computing is in the middle of one of the biggest build up cycles since the dot com days, and there has even been a recent flurry of interest in cloud computing for Electronic Design Automation (EDA). Is this just propaganda, or is there really something of compelling value that cloud can offer for electronic designers?

First, we should distinguish between “EDA” and electronic design. Rather than viewing the situation from a narrow EDA industry perspective, cloud computing should be approached from the standpoint of how electronic design customers view, forecast and prioritize their technology and infrastructure needs, and how the electronic design ecosystem can step up to match these needs.

Electronic design customers face tasks that are essentially intractable – the computational complexity grows exponentially as design complexity grows. The electronic design ecosystem – primarily EDA tool vendors and compute hardware vendors – has delivered innovation and performance that, in combination, managed to support this explosion of compute resource demand over the past two decades. However, electronic designers are being forced to spend even more precious CAPEX to satisfy the ever-growing demand for IT infrastructure. This situation is exacerbated by the rapidly growing complexity of managing this infrastructure. Possibly worse than the huge capital investment, electronic design companies must divert focus away from their core business imperatives in order to run data centers.

What cloud computing offers the electronic design community is an opportunity to fundamentally break this cycle. Cloud computing offers the promise of instant access to all of the compute resources necessary to match the highest demand peaks, and the instant elasticity needed to stop paying for those resources when the peaks are over. Moreover, as this benefit is delivered as a managed service, customers can realign their focus on their core competencies, while defocusing from doubling data center capacity every two years. Of course, there must be a starting point use case, and the commonly acknowledged best use case for cloud computing in electronic design is functional verification. Functional verification is the top consumer of compute resources at most electronic design customers. Because functional verification regression testing entails running many thousands to millions of small independent jobs, the limitations of Amdahl’s law don’t really apply, and additional parallelization can be matched against ever-increasing regression test size almost without limit. Electronic design customers have occupied the majority of their data centers with verification compute farms for years, and this naturally extrapolates to matching demand surge needs with cloud compute resources.

Electronic Design in the cloud–a compelling proposition

  • Increasing Design Complexity requires large computing resources that work better if distributed over many servers, especially at key steps (regression tests, logical and physical verification and so on)
  • Peak usage can be easily handled with paying only for resources used for the needed tools and only for the duration used without worrying about hardware infrastructure deployment, upgrade and maintenance
  • Concerns about security have largely been addressed, through encryption, secure access
    Data integrity, version control, backup, disaster recovery and multiple-site collaboration mandate location independent computing and information content storage.
  • Flexibility in using best of breed point tools versus one stop shopping with captive flows
  • Standardized reference flows are making it possible to have scripted and homogenized design techniques and solutions applied in a design factory mode where scripted jobs are sent to be run and examined later without incurring transacting costs for viewing and analyzing
  • Foundries are increasingly becoming a natural host for design IP, content and information repository for key process and manufacturing information that goes along with design content information such as design kits, third party IP and waivers or process rules
  • Start-ups may be able to afford the use of expensive tools and so will medium and large companies who could restructure uses for project activity-based accounting that will be able to measure ROI and value propositions on a more granular basis instead of spreading EDA costs ‘peanut-butter style’ with no ability to know what was used, worked or even abused
IP is the lifeblood of this industry, and so most of the design companies are evaluating how cloud computing can benefit them as far as IP is concerned.

Industry analysts, customers and vendors all spend a great deal of time talking about how to evaluate whether and how any of this can be justified. Determining the ROI of moving to cloud computing is not really rocket science. However, because of the newness of cloud computing in this industry, there is also a large emotional component in the electronic design community’s thinking about cloud adoption. Electronic design companies place extraordinary value on their designs and other associated intellectual property (IP). IP is the lifeblood of this industry, and so most of the design companies are evaluating how cloud computing can benefit them as far as IP is concerned.

The electronic design ecosystem is actively laying the groundwork for supporting cloud computing. There are intensive investigations, collaboration and testing activities going on, and much, much more on the horizon. In addition to all of this activity, however, it will take a leap of faith at the most senior level at a customer before real adoption commences. It’s incumbent on all of the vendors in the ecosystem not only to provide compelling objective value, but also to collaborate so that everything we do is aligned towards making that leap of faith a simple and comfortable decision.