Who Does What
Software has moved from an afterthought to a top priority for chip designers, which is why all of the Big 3 companies are focusing a huge amount of effort in this area.
Cadence’s whole EDA360 initiative is focused on software driving the hardware rather than the other way around. Mentor Graphics has one of the most popular RTOSes in the history of software. And Synopsys has moved rather quickly into software prototyping and standard IP.
To some extent, these moves are a recognition that the ASIC market will be flat to down over the next couple years because the number of companies that can afford to build chips at 28nm and 22nm is shrinking at each node. That will change once 3D stacking gets underway commercially, probably late next year and into 2012. But when that change occurs, the focus will be more on re-use and integration than building a new chip from scratch. When that happens, the really big opportunity that will open up will be on the software side.
In lock step with that shift is an understanding that the way to really improve power consumption in devices is to make the interaction between hardware and software more efficient. Power permeates all these changes because it saves money in plugged-in environments and it affects the user experience in the portable electronics world. Software is the place where the biggest gains can be made in power consumption. And because hardware and EDA companies are the only ones that really understand how to improve efficiency—at least for now—the push to control a greater piece of the software stack will take on new urgency.
This will play out over the next couple of years as tools companies and their customers jockey for position on how to differentiate themselves from the competition—and to eke more value out of what they do. But there are two big questions that remain unanswered. One is the extent to which software will be designed specifically for hardware, which has been done largely through operating systems in the past, or whether the hardware increasingly will be designed for the software. The second question is who exactly will be doing this work. Will it be the application vendors, the operating system vendors, the virtualization layer vendors or the hardware and tools companies?
In every transition there are lots of pieces that can come together in unusual ways, and this transition is no exception.