Electronic Design

Little Things Mean A Lot For Design Collaboration

Chip complexity has increased phenomenally, with gate counts pushing beyond 10 million. It takes the collaboration of a large team of creative talent to design one such complex chip or boards containing dozens of them. Often the necessary talent is not in just one location. Instead, large, distributed design teams must be assembled. Dividing work across multiple locations, possibly dispersed around the globe, makes simply staying in touch with each other a critical aspect of the design.

Having design teams unified under one roof fosters casual encounters and makes it easier to answer design questions. It's a simple matter of dropping into the office next door or catching someone in the hallway. We probably don't even realize how many times we actually do that during the design of a product. But if getting together entails picking up a phone, driving to another location, or getting on a plane, many of those seemingly small questions may remain unanswered.

Nowadays, videoconferencing and teleconferencing play an increasingly important role in the collaboration process. However, with these scheduled meetings, you typically end up "saving" questions, then prioritizing them to ensure that the most important issues are discussed first. So, the little matters that might significantly influence the design never get ad-dressed. When these detail nuances of the design--like signal polarities, timing, power budgets, and physical-size constraints--aren't fully addressed, they could turn into the dreaded "gotchas" that sabotage an otherwise solid design.

Can large distributed design teams ever achieve that impromptu, interactive, and valuable banter? I think it's possible, after allowing for the in-evitable time differences between team members on opposite sides of the globe. New collaboration tools will permit spur-of-the-moment questions to be passed back and forth and instant meetings to be easily coordinated. Also, low-cost communications using voice-over-packet telephony will keep multiple designers in contact. Further, cell phones and PDAs let designers send and receive e-mail on spur-of-the-moment questions when they're not sitting at their computers.

The main challenge of these forthcoming collaboration tools is the ease of information transfer. It must be simple and quick for users to clip a portion of a diagram, send a signal waveform or two, or provide the supporting material that questions a possible solution. We shouldn't have to think twice about how to excerpt something and send it with a message to an associate. Cutting and pasting from EDA tools to e-mail should be fast and easy, rather than the current cumbersome procedure.

What form of messaging should we demand in the future? Do you think we'll need a virtual presence to make it feel like we're shaking hands, or talking by the water cooler? Above all, though, we must continue talking to each other.

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