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Don’t Underestimate The Value of Standards

March 22, 2012
In her debut column, Karen Bartleson recaps why standards matter to design engineers and how they serve as a foundation for technology and business. Along the way, she gives shout-outs to some successful standards as well as a few failures.
Many people take standards for granted, if they think of standards at all. Yet standards underpin so many aspects of life on earth (and beyond), their value shouldn’t be underestimated. The semiconductor and electronic design industries rely heavily on technical standards. They also depend on safety and other types of standards that transcend the industry. Presently, there are more than 500,000 published standards worldwide, with about $1.5 billion being invested in their creation and maintenance annually.

There are many kinds of standards, ranging from technical standards to measurement standards to safety standards to human behavior standards. Measurement standards could possibly be the first standards invented by mankind. While safety standards serve the electronics industry, both suppliers and consumers, and behavior standards affect everyone at a personal level, the type of standard that is most visible for electronic design is the technical standard.

Wikipedia defines a technical standard as “an established norm or requirement about technical systems. It is usually a formal document that establishes uniform engineering or technical criteria, methods, processes and practices.” Standards for electronic design are commonly thought of as interface formats, common databases and application programming interfaces (APIs), and intellectual property (IP) design standards.

Standards Support Technology

Technical standards that are widely used in electronic design serve at least four purposes during the design cycle. The first is interoperability. The process of designing a modern chip is complex, involving many steps, many design automation tools, many data libraries and databases, and many iterations.

The data that describes the chip’s functionality, timing, and physical characteristics must pass between tools as seamlessly as possible. Standard file formats, interfaces, and databases ensure that the tools can communicate properly with each other, effecting interoperability. Design engineers need tools to interoperate. They don’t have time to write interfaces between different tools. Interoperability is an expected feature, just like any other feature of an EDA tool.

The second purpose for technical standards in electronic design is design portability and reuse. Advanced systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) aren’t designed from scratch. They’re assembled using existing designs and IP building blocks, then enhanced with new features to become a unique SoC. The existing designs and IP are described in standard languages and formats so they can be readily reused and combined. Standard design descriptions also allow designs to be ported more easily into newer technologies and smaller geometries.

Complex designs and SoCs aren’t developed by a few engineers sitting in adjacent offices. Instead, teams of many experts—often geographically dispersed—are required. A third aspect of standards is that they help make it possible for teams to collaborate. Parts of the design developed by one team can be verified by another team, and design iterations can be communicated more readily. Even if the teams don’t speak or write the same language, they can still work on the same design using standard formats, design descriptions, and databases.

A fourth reason that standards are important to the design cycle is that they improve quality. Any time that data is translated into a different format, design description language, or database, there is a risk of errors being introduced. This is especially true as the data is added to and manipulated during the design process. Whenever the design data is represented in a standard way, translation is not required, lowering the risk of introduced errors and increasing quality.

Standards Support Business

From a business perspective, technical standards help lower product development costs and increase competitiveness.

It’s easy to see how technical standards can lower product development costs. If a product interface has already been defined as a standard, a vendor need only implement it. There’s no need to invest the time (and money) to specify a new interface and determine how to make the new interface work with other products, either from the vendor’s own product portfolio or from those of other suppliers. The implementation can be unique, as long as it complies with the standard, giving the vendor a competitive edge.

If a specification for functionality has been standardized, a vendor can skip over the validation phase of a product specification and go right into developing an implementation plan. Knowing what the functionality is supposed to be, without having to define and validate it at the beginning of product development, saves time. Time is money for businesses. As the product is developed, its functionality can be verified against the standard at each step of the development process.

When companies can build products upon common standards, competition increases. For the customer (the consumer), competition usually means more choice, either in higher-quality products, more product features, lower prices, or a combination of these advantages.

A less obvious way that standards support business is in mergers and acquisitions. Products can be merged more easily when they support the same standards. The government feels more comfortable that a monopoly won’t be formed when the merging companies support open standards that let other companies compete in their marketplace, essentially leveling the playing field with standards.

Standards Aren’t Free

Creating standards can be expensive. Sending qualified employees (both technically- and business-focused) to participate on standards committees is an investment that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Depending on the speed at which the standard needs to progress through the development process, several man-years of effort can be compressed into a short period of time—perhaps as short as six months. In electronic design, where Moore’s Law demands that standards be produced fast enough to keep up with each new technology node, the speed of standards creation and adoption must be faster than in other industries such as the power and energy industry.

Standard implementation also can be expensive. Support for a standard is a product feature, just like any other product feature. Customers expect products to have features for supporting standards. Yet, adding features requires more engineering time. Certification testing is important, too, unless the vendor doesn’t mind having its customers do it after they purchase the product.

There can also be a psychological factor to consider. It can be a lot more fun and feel more rewarding to invent one’s own interface or database, but NIH (not invented here) and reinventing the wheel don’t always serve a company’s business goals—unless, of course, the interface or database is a significant improvement over what’s currently available.

Standards Can Have A Positive ROI

Return-on-investment (ROI) can be calculated in various ways. A simple formula for ROI is:

ROI% = (benefit – cost)/cost

So, what is the ROI for standards development and implementation? These are two different things. Standards development involves sending experts in technology and business to working meetings and governance committees, often involving conference, Internet, and travel expenses.

Determining the cost is straightforward. Add up the hourly costs of the employees, travel expenses, phone charges, Web service costs, catering, and the like. To make it more complex, the opportunity costs—what the employees could have been working on instead—can be factored in.

Figuring out the benefit of standards development is a little more difficult. How one measures market leadership, customer satisfaction, competitive edge, value of mergers and acquisitions, reputation, and service to the industry/humankind is up to the companies to decide.

Standards implementation, on the other hand, is what happens after the standards have been created. Lower product development costs can be estimated by deciding how long it would take to develop the standard interface, database, specification, or API from scratch and how many people it would take to do so. Not spending this results in a cost savings.

The cost savings of increased time-to-market can be added to the overall cost savings, as can increased market share. These represent the benefit of standards implementation in the ROI equation. The cost of implementing the standard is the cost of the employees’ time and possibly other resources such as computers and utilities, but these are usually included in the cost of labor.

When a positive ROI is apparent, it’s usually worth the investment for companies to participate in standards development and implement standards in their products and services.

Successful Standards

Four classic examples of successful standards that have certainly paid off in the electronic design industry are EDIF, Verilog, VHDL, and GDSII. These venerable standards arose in the early 1980s (1978 for GDSII) as chip complexity reached the era of VLSI, which began in the 1970s. More design automation tools were required as people could no longer design chips with thousands of gates in a reasonable amount of time without automation.

EDIF is no longer in widespread use, essentially having been retired for more advanced techniques and standards for passing design data through the design process. While a replacement for GDSII is becoming necessary due to the sheer size of the files that hold the massive amounts of layout data required for today’s billion-transistor designs, Verilog and VHDL are still bread-and-butter standards of the industry.

As chip complexity has continued to increase, SystemVerilog and SystemC have stepped in to take on bigger design challenges at the system level. SystemVerilog entered the scene in 2002 with SystemC being created in parallel, starting in 1999. Numerous designs and countless products and services have been developed with these two standards as key ingredients.

More recently, the Unified Power Format (UPF) was created to serve the needs of chip designers who needed to describe their design intent in a common format. As techniques for designing low-power chips were developed, such as clock-gating and multi-voltage threshold optimization, different companies used different formats to describe the designers’ goals for their low-power designs.

When companies had to collaborate and low-power design data had to move from one EDA tool to another, there was an outcry from designers for the industry to agree on a single format. The result was a standard that was created in record time, less than six months, and was built from eight technology donations from seven companies.

UPF was then transferred to the IEEE Standards Association for ratification through its formal and ANSI-accredited process. Today, UPF’s official name is 1801-2009—IEEE Standard for Design and Verification of Low Power Integrated Circuits. The IEEE project working group, P1801, is currently updating it.

Standards Failures

Two classic examples of failed standards in the electronic design industry are DCL and ALF. DCL is the Delay Calculation Language, used for determining gate delays and having an elaborate API callback system. After it was invented, DCL was later included in the IEEE standard officially called 1481-1999—IEEE Standard for Integrated Circuit (IC) Delay and Power Calculation System. A few EDA tools supported DCL, but customers weren’t interested in using it.

ALF is the Advanced Library Format, which eventually became 1603—IEEE Standard for an Advanced Library Format (ALF). It was created at a time when there wasn’t a common, open format for representing ASIC library elements that EDA vendors and ASIC designers alike could use. When the most widely used library format by ASIC designers was made freely available to everyone by the EDA vendor that owned it, ALF became unnecessary as it would have cost too much to convert hundreds of existing libraries into a different format.

Despite significant resources and effort put into DCL and ALF, they were unsuccessful because they weren’t adopted widely. Technically sound standards developed by experts do not always survive and serve the industry. Adoption is one of the most important measures of success for a standard.

Standards In Action Today

Numerous technical standards are at work in the electronic design industry these days. Two of the most prominent organizations that are producing and maintaining the standards for EDA are the IEEE Standards Association (IEEE-SA) and the Accellera Systems Initiative. The IEEE-SA has been producing standards for 100 years, and its portfolio contains more than 45 EDA-related standards.

The Accellera Systems Initiative is the current incarnation of the EDA standards-setting body that began as Open Verilog International (OVI) and VHDL International (VI). OVI and VI combined into Accellera in 2000, which went on to merge with the SPIRIT Consortium in 2009 and Open SystemC Initiative in 2011. Five active standards projects in the Accellera Systems Initiative today are destined for the IEEE-SA upon completion.

EDA and user companies alike contribute notable resources to creating and updating standards for electronic design. For example, at present, Synopsys products and solutions support over 60 standards, and Synopsys participates in more than 30 standards organizations.

Technical standards have served the electronic design industry for decades. They continue to serve us today, and their value will increase as design complexity marches forward according to Moore’s Law. Standards support technology and business. They don’t come free, but they can have a positive ROI when created and implemented properly. In essence, standards matter. Don’t underestimate them.

About the Author

Karen Bartleson | Senior Director of Community Marketing

Karen Bartleson is the senior director of corporate programs and initiatives at Synopsys Inc. She has 30 years of experience in semiconductors, joining Synopsys in 1995 as standards manager. Her responsibilities include initiatives that increase customer satisfaction through interoperability, standards support, university relationships, and social media engagements. She also held the position of director of quality at Synopsys for three years. She was elected to become president of the IEEE Standards Association for the 2013-2014 term. She holds a BSEE from California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, Calif. She was the recipient of the Marie R. Pistilli Women in Design Automation Achievement Award in 2003. Her first book, The Ten Commandments for Effective Standards, was published in May 2010.

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