Electronic Design

Racing Silicon

Design competition means more than just beating rival products. Designers also are in a race against silicon technology. Faster, denser, cheaper silicon is a heck of a competitor. Running a good race means stepping out to larger design scopes, hurdling new design methodologies, and pushing a wider product range.

Fifty years ago, designers worked with basic components: resistors, capacitors, inductors, and transistors. We built everything from scratch. But as silicon became denser, technology moved from discrete components to small-scale ICs, and then up to today's systems-on-a-chip (SoCs). At the system level, we created boards and buses to partition ever larger systems. Modules enabled us to add functionality without redesigning boards. Over time, our bus systems became multilevel, with a CPU local bus, a peripherals bus, a mezzanine bus, and then a board system bus. Now we're shifting to switch-fabrics to interconnect arrays and clusters of system elements.

A half-century ago, hardware design was the domain of circuit designers, with a sprinkling of logic designers. But as logic ICs became dominant, design shifted to the realm of logic designers with fewer and fewer circuit designers. Microprocessors led a shift to programmers, as more canned logic with larger chips demanded less individual logic design. Logic design turned to customizable logic, ranging from gate arrays to full custom chips, supplemented with ever larger programmable logic.

Today's silicon delivers system-sized components. The internal logic is secondary to the number of pinouts. So, design has again shifted—this time to systems design, but at two levels: the SoC or silicon platform level, and the module or board level. Playing with logic has given way to playing with larger components—IP, modules, boards, and subsystems. There also is a second-order silicon effect: the silicon-based products we build leverage our design methodologies. Faster, bigger, and better computers translate to faster, bigger, and better design and modeling tools.

So enjoy your hardware design tasks today. Tomorrow's designs will be very different as the silicon curve ramps up. The race is on, and the winners will be those who step up to the new levels of silicon-driven design. Lots of luck!

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