IBM plans to shake up the EDA industry by offering its in-house IC design tools through the cloud.
“If anyone can disrupt this market, it is going to be IBM,” said Jai Iyer, CEO of cloud-aided design company SiCAD, which will handle sales and customer support.
IBM and SiCAD plan to roll out an end-to-end IC design solution, starting with three tools: a Verilog simulator, a Spice simulator, and model characterization. Formal verifications tools are slated to follow next, with synthesis, place and route, floor planning, timing analysis and physical verification being added later.
“The plan is to have additional tools to offer an end-to-end solution,” said Iyer.
For now, IBM and SiCAD, who have been working for 16 months to get the tools cloud-ready, are focusing on discrete tasks that can be packaged up and sent into the cloud to run without a lot of user interaction, such as large-scale regression testing.
Bryan Hartlen, business development lead for software defined infrastructure and HPC cloud services at IBM, said: “We’ll start with low risk and easily separable steps within the design flow to give the customers confidence.”
Iyer said that the tools will initially be positioned as an adjunct to customers’ existing design flows. Customers should do their design and debug on their in-house tools and then use the IBM offering to handle large regressions. The tools will not be marketed as sign-off solutions “because of the time to acceptance.”
SiCAD’s role will be to help customers get familiar with the tools. Taking as an example the size of design team needed to develop an IoT chip in a 55nm process, Iyer estimated that it could be up and running on the tools in three to six months.
“Our role initially is going to be handholding, then the goal is to have people running the tools for themselves,” said Iyer. “Given the user-friendliness of the portal and the fact that we’re making the tools compatible with traditional EDA, we think the ramp will be pretty fast.”
What’s different this time?
The tools that IBM and SiCAD will offer are owned by IBM Microelectronics and used by it to develop its POWER mainframe and other complex chips. IBM has tried to commercialise its IC design tools before, with a mixed level of success often attributed to the way in which they were tuned to address IBM’s specialised design challenges.
Iyer says that it will work with IBM to make the tools accessible to ‘traditional’ EDA tool users and appropriate for a wider set of designs: “As we start introducing physical design tools the goal is to ensure they can work for industry-standard applications.”
The business model that IBM and SiCAD are applying may also make the tools more accessible.
“This is a service model, not a licence model, which changes the economics and customer set we can address,” Hartlen said.
“The pay-as-you-go business model will make the tools extremely affordable.”
He said that a design team optimising an IoT chip for cost would be a good candidate customer.
“That’s a great sweet spot for our service, because it lowers the barriers of entry,” he added. At the other end of the spectrum, IBM and SiCAD want to be able address large design houses, which can face scheduling bottlenecks.
“Our service will allow them to ‘burst’ the excess demand onto the cloud. We’ll be able to offer big regressions at a commercially attractive price,” Hartlen said. “It will help users test the tools and get comfortable with our offering.”
Iyer added that the upcoming formal verification tools will address a need that SiCAD has recognised among its customers.
“We have identified formal verification as an ideal candidate for the cloud because it costs a lot for the licences and it takes a lot of compute,” he said.
What IBM is styling IBM High Performance Services for EDA will be delivered on the IBM SoftLayer cloud infrastructure, through the IBM Cloud Marketplace portal. Iyer said that offering a self-contained, end-to-end service through IBM as a single provider would help build the service’s credibility with customers, compared with EDA vendors who have to build cloud offerings from a variety of external providers.
He said one potential customer had said of another cloud offering: “You’re telling me my data is going to reside on that bookseller’s cloud? No way!”