Design Teams Collaborate Using Internet Fast Track

May 21, 2001
Internet-enabled EDA tools bring design resources to bear no matter the location of your team members.

About a year ago, the World Wide Web was on everyone's mind and lips. Usage was skyrocketing and e-business plans were everywhere. If you weren't heavily invested in dot-coms, you had missed the train to Easy Street.

Since then, the party for Internet investors has broken up. For design engineers, though, the Internet party is picking up steam. The Internet may no longer be a quick road to riches, but it can be a fast track to successful collaborative design. Wherever you're in-volved, from board-level design to complex ASIC and SoC projects, the Internet is playing an increasingly important role in team design. Moreover, a wide variety of Web-based tools and resources exist to help teams move faster and share information efficiently.

To fully understand the Internet's impact on the function of a design team, one must first look at the nature of the team in today's engineering environment. For one thing, few if any electronic design efforts are undertaken by design teams with all members in one place. It's becoming more and more difficult to even assemble a team in one area. Those hot-shot designers you hope to steal from a competitor might only come aboard if they can live in a remote rural area, instead of in Silicon Valley where your team is based. So, team members on a given project might be scattered across a continent, or even the globe. To a large extent, though, Internet-based collaboration can nullify the team's physical separation.

In addition, the relative scarcity of engineering resources demands team-building efforts that not only span an OEM's campus, but also cross organizational boundaries. Maybe your design calls for expertise that lies outside of your company's domain, so you've outsourced parts of it. Perhaps you're benefiting from the insights of a vendor's application engineers, or you have contracted with consultants to get an edge. In each case, the current generation of Internet-enabled EDA tools brings design partners from other organizations into the loop in ways that enhance productivity and shorten design cycles.

This disaggregation of the design team makes online collaboration helpful for any kind of design undertaken. But the levels of complexity between an IC project and a board-level design can significantly differ. So, the tools and resources for these different types of projects have evolved a little differently.

Board-level design generally involves smaller teams. The variables in board layout are better known and better quantifiable. Plus, you typically deal with well-defined library elements, packaged parts, and well-understood manufacturing processes.

The IC world is, of course, a very different story. The IP blocks you hope to use have all kinds of interfaces. Many aren't easy to implement. Some parts of your library are built on-the-fly, while others don't even exist yet. Other deliverables take various nonstandard forms. The fabrication process itself might even shift as your design cycle is under way. Overall, there are far fewer "knowns" in IC design as opposed to pc-board design. Yet while pc-board design has been viewed for some time as the easier area in which to apply Internet-based collaboration, the potential gains for IC design teams are far greater.

Internet-based SoC design environments need to provide three things, says Jeff Jussel, director of global programs for Mentor Graphics' Consulting Division: design productivity, design reuse, and design quality.

Design productivity very much imposes on everyone's mind these days. The increasing complexity of IC designs, coupled with the ubiquitous time-to-market pressure, makes a focus on productivity paramount (Fig. 1). With good SoC designers so hard to come by, you want them to concentrate on differentiation of the end product.

Internet-based collaboration ad-dresses productivity in a number of key areas. The geographically dispersed team needs as many ways to keep in close contact as possible, and the Internet provides an effective communication channel. An example of an application that facilitates Internet communication is Synchronicity's ProjectSync. This tool ensures that the loop is closed on all issues related to a design project. For instance, it incorporates a scalable defect and issue tracking system to keep all design team members aware of bugs that need to be tracked down. The tool also provides a read-only audit trail that gives instant access to the "who," "what," "when," and "why" for each design change.

More-effective communication among team members is one enhancement that the Internet can bring to the design process. But productive collaboration also demands that designers have instant, protected access to the design under their development, and the ability to share that data. It's critical that the various tools within a design flow can handle data in an efficient manner that keeps it updated and ready to use.

In the past, most design teams employed multiple point tools with multiple databases. "A lot of the work in making for a consistent environment meant using Unix and their own custom programs for translation, command and data consistency, and revision control, across these multiple databases for multiple designers," says Jeff Roane, vice president of marketing for synthesis/place and route (SP&R) products at Cadence Design Systems.

Cadence has attempted to address this issue with the development of its new Genesis database technology. Genesis has seen its first implementation in Cadence's Integration Ensemble SP&R tool (see "Hierarchical SoC Design Tool Handles Over 25 Mgates," electronic design, April 2, p. 73). The tool is Internet-enabled as it runs on Unix-based workstations. Genesis is an example of the latest generation of tools with underlying technology that facilitates collaborative design flows.

Integration Ensemble and tools like it let large OEMs with worldwide design teams dispatch jobs over idle machines, using their internal networks, to take advantage of downtime. The capability to access the tool via the Internet or an intranet, coupled with its unified database technology, provides a productivity enhancement that can greatly reduce the time required for simulation and verification runs.

Not only must the tools handle data efficiently to make collaboration effective, but that data must be managed well on an overall project level. Clean and effective revision control is key in team design to ensure that everyone is working on the most up-to-date version of a design file. Products such as Synchronicity's DesignSync support this functionality. It provides version control, issue tracking, and release and configuration management.

DesignSync performs revision control by requiring users to log onto the server that holds the design data and "check out" a given file on which they plan to work. It automatically creates a "branch" for that file, noting the origin, or "parent," of that branch, and keeps track of all changes. At the same time, another designer can check out the same file, if the system is set to create a separate branch for each designer. After designers finish working, they check their files back into the server. If the two ever decide to merge their changes into a single branch, the tool identifies the three contributors to the merge: the parent, and each new branch. DesignSync then employs a three-way merge algorithm to calculate the changes from the parent to each branch, and adds them back into the parent.

Mentor's Consulting Division uses a base set of software called the QuickUse Development System (QDS) for developing custom SoC design environments. QDS software provides the base functions for IP management and employs a data-centric approach to tie that IP to qualification and SoC design flows. The system uses Enterprise Java Bean (EJB) technology and a three-tier database architecture to build Internet-based SoC design collaboration environments. This type of foundation software offers the benefit of being customizable and scalable to meet the exact needs of the user design group.

Reusing IP In addition to the productivity enhancements available, an Internet-enabled design environment should help designers to more easily reuse IP and other design information. Overall, for purposes of design reuse, a collaborative design environment must include an IP repository that lets users search and select from a protected source of existing IP, whether internally or externally developed. It should offer configuration management by which users can collect the data that goes together and allow multiple ways of grouping and managing these configurations.

According to Mentor's Jussel, functional verification now causes the majority of the problem in SoC design. The design environment must treat verification as a special class of IP and ease the reuse of verification elements.

Designers will increasingly find ways to use online resources to evaluate and qualify IP. Simutech Corp. is offering its eValab IP Services for just this purpose. The IP hosting service is run on Simutech's eValab Platform and Coreboard technology, which is accessible through any popular or proprietary IP or ASIC vendor portal.

The service is intended to reduce bottlenecks associated with front-end design-in of IP, and to facilitate reuse. It provides for interactive online "what-if" scenario building, so users can specify various IP components of a reference design (Fig. 2). The service supplies users with a quality assessment of the system they have configured, evaluating it in terms of functionality, performance, and architecture. Users can vary the input data, the instructions that the virtual reference design is running, and so on.

A corporate-wide IP infrastructure is required for OEMs to effectively leverage IP reuse across their various design efforts. Synchronicity's IP Gear product is specifically targeted at helping design teams and corporations build design reuse infrastructures. The tool is aimed at meeting the requirements of informal design reuse at a workgroup or team level, as well as creating a corporate centralized reuse repository.

Recently, Synchronicity augmented its IP Gear offerings with its IP Developer Suite, IP Publisher Suite, and IP Consumer Suite. The former is a workgroup-level tool permitting "informal" design reuse. IP Publisher Suite supports access control, data encryption, a Help Desk, and the user roles necessary for controlled, enterprise-wide design reuse or intercompany IP delivery. For IP users, IP Consumer Suite acts as the receiving end of an IP delivery system from a supplier using Synchronicity's IP Gear Publisher Suite.

Products like those offered by Synchronicity can form the backbone of a design team's efforts to leverage the Internet. Some EDA vendors, however, have chosen a different track for design tool delivery. With so many startups proliferating throughout the industry, the EDA vendors have tried to implement the Internet as a delivery system and attempted to set themselves up as application service providers (ASPs). This approach has the advantage that design firms don't have to tie up time and resources by setting up a server farm. Designers can subscribe to an ASP and be productive almost immediately from anywhere.

One example of this approach can be seen in Synopsys' DesignSphere Access program. Launched last year, DesignSphere Access provides a turnkey design environment for complex ICs, completely online. Thanks to partnerships forged with Avant! and TSMC, DesignSphere Access offers a secure design environment that's accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from any laptop and any ISP connection.

"We manage all of the compute infrastructure that users would need to exercise EDA tools," says Steve Smith, Synopsys' director of marketing for DesignSphere Access. Tools used on the service may come from Synopsys, Avant!, or other third-party EDA or software vendor tools. "One could also look at it as aggregation of all the suppliers that a customer would need to work with and use their tools to do a complex design," Smith adds.

Because all of the data, tools, and compute resources are centrally located, all of the design team members can participate from wherever they're located at any given time, so long as they can get online. DesignSphere Access offers what Synopsys calls "desktop sharing," or the capability for designers to share their screens with a remotely located colleague. Both can review the design and modify or edit it in real time.

In the same vein, IBM Microelectronics recently announced an Internet-based tool to accelerate development of custom designs based on its Blue Logic ASICs. The online design environment requires a Java-capable browser for users to share chip information with IBM engineers. It also enables users to access design kits, software tools, and related product information. It's intended to help designers quickly identify and fix design problems and to secure personalized education and support necessary to complete custom ICs.

For design teams, a myriad of online resources are available to aid in the quest for working silicon. But chips are generally attached to pc boards in a finished product. Board design had a bit of a head start in terms of moving to a collaborative, Internet-based environment (see "Internet-Enabled Tools Open Doors To New Design Strategies," electronic design, March 6, 2000, p. 77). As a result, there's a good and increasing amount of online resources available to pc-board design teams.

For a while, some pc-board design tools have enabled users in diverse locations to share files and even update the same file remotely. One such tool, Electronics Workbench's Multisim, sports a feature called Internet Design Sharing. This lets multiple engineers work on the same circuit design simultaneously from remote locations and see the effects of any one person's actions on the design in real time. The tool offers other features crucial to Internet-based collaboration, including database management, version control, and hierarchical support. The latter refers to support for partitioning the design so that various team members or subgroups can work on various parts of the design at once.

Multisim also offers functionality that's akin to IP reuse in the pc-board design world. The tool allows users to reuse part of a board (or PLD design, for that matter) as a prebuilt, preverified block that's stored in the parts library. It stores not only the subsystem elements, but also the connectivity between them.

One area where the pc-board design world is fairly advanced is in Internet-based supply-chain management. Electronics Workbench offers a function called, a Web site available from within the company's tools. This site affords users access to PartMiner's database of 12 million parts, with the ability to download data-sheets, schematic-capture symbols, and more. Multisim can create Spice models directly from a part's datasheet, making it easy for users to incorporate downloaded part information into their libraries.

Another vendor with a well-developed Internet-capable pc-board design flow is Innoveda. Its Design Exchange suite of tools provides a full range of Web-enabled capabilities, from design data management to library development, enterprise-level data management, and more. The firm's DxParts tool generates schematic symbols directly from the PartMiner database and supports parametric searches, which allow designers to find parts that meet specific selection criteria.

Also note the online parts database from Aprisa Inc. The firm recently released version 3.0 of its CircuitNet online research and design environment. CircuitNet gives designers a complete Web-based discovery environment in which to turn their product concept into a basic design solution. CircuitNet includes a comprehensive, unbiased XML database, featuring detailed information on hundreds of thousands of active components, plus a vast library of downloadable product datasheets and reference designs.

CircuitNet's patent-pending, parametric search engine lets users locate components by attributes, design requirements, and orderable part numbers. In addition, the application features a suite of design tools, permitting engineers to build block diagrams, test component compatibility, view side-by-side comparisons of similar parts from various vendors, and generate comprehensive design-summary reports that detail all work completed in CircuitNet.

Surpassing Today's Limits Despite the advanced functionality for Web-based design flows granted by today's tools, current-generation pc-board design tools have reached their limit in terms of what design teams will want to do with online supply-chain management in the future.

"Designers will want information about suppliers and the manufacturing processes, including their limitations and tradeoffs," says Jack Woida, director of strategic marketing for Mentor's System Design Division. "Information must cross the boundary from the pure engineering design domain to related domains." Woida believes such information does cross domains today, but not in a manner or format that's readily usable by engineers within their design environment.

Last year, Mentor's System Design Division acquired the German company Descon Informationssysteme GmbH, along with a product called Data Management System (DMS). The DMS suite includes component-supplier information management, EDA library management, and a new category of products called Front-End Product Data Management (FPDM). DMS enhances the supply-chain management process through the easy integration into Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and other business systems. Plus, collaborative and concurrent design is fully realized and accessible through Web technologies.

Woida claims that, over time, Mentor will gradually integrate the DMS functionality into its board design tools. "The tools will be able to query across the Internet to a component supplier, or to a contract manufacturer, for information," he says. They also will add capability to facilitate the outsourcing of manufacturing, a scenario that makes the sharing of design and manufacturing information imperative. Woida envisions DMS comprising a shared virtual space that sits between the design and manufacturing domains where data can be viewed, marked up, and discussed by personnel from these disparate yet co-dependent worlds.

Of course, before this idea takes root, component suppliers and service organizations will need to come on board and make product and process data available online in a standardized format for tools, like Mentor's DMS, to understand and use efficiently. Numerous initiatives along these lines have cropped up over the years. One with promise is RosettaNet, a consortium of more than 400 component vendors, information technology companies, and semiconductor manufacturers.

RosettaNet standards purport to offer a robust nonproprietary solution, encompassing data dictionaries, implementation framework, and business message schemas and process specifications for e-business standardization. In Woida's view, the RosettaNet standards are the missing link for a seamless flow of design and process information from designers' desktops to vendors and manufacturing concerns.

Once such standards are in place, and after OEMs, vendors, and other service suppliers sign on in sufficient numbers, design teams will have an even simpler time navigating the waters of design success. But for now, rest assured that a great many resources are available to pull together the increasingly fragmented units that comprise design teams as we know them today.

Companies That Contributed To This Report
Aprisa Inc.
(805) 495-8177, ext. 264

Cadence Design Systems
(408) 943-1234

Electronics Workbench
(416) 977-5550

IBM Corp.
(800) 426-4968

Innoveda Inc.
(800) 873-8439

Mentor Graphics Corp.
(503) 685-7000

(714) 480-3820

Simutech Corp.
(408) 467-1535

Synchronicity Inc.
(508) 485-4122

Synopsys Inc.
(877) 321-6063

Sponsored Recommendations

What are the Important Considerations when Assessing Cobot Safety?

April 16, 2024
A review of the requirements of ISO/TS 15066 and how they fit in with ISO 10218-1 and 10218-2 a consideration the complexities of collaboration.

Wire & Cable Cutting Digi-Spool® Service

April 16, 2024
Explore DigiKey’s Digi-Spool® professional cutting service for efficient and precise wire and cable management. Custom-cut to your exact specifications for a variety of cable ...

DigiKey Factory Tomorrow Season 3: Sustainable Manufacturing

April 16, 2024
Industry 4.0 is helping manufacturers develop and integrate technologies such as AI, edge computing and connectivity for the factories of tomorrow. Learn more at DigiKey today...

Connectivity – The Backbone of Sustainable Automation

April 16, 2024
Advanced interfaces for signals, data, and electrical power are essential. They help save resources and costs when networking production equipment.


To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Electronic Design, create an account today!