By Bipul Talukdar, SmartDV
The future of chip design in a few short years could look entirely different as the semiconductor industry witnesses an advancing trend toward free and flexible, community-supported hardware designs for the long tail of new applications based on custom semiconductor devices. Anyone now can take advantage of open-source solutions to design their own CPU, custom accelerator or specialized processor, creating a semiconductor renaissance like no other the industry has seen before. In addition, availability of high-performance FPGAs with affordable, commercialized flows give boost to a low-budget, high-volume application markets.
Changes also bring a new level of complexity because these chips need a disparate set of capabilities to support open source, flexible and adaptable designs. The chip supporting anything open source does not need customized implementations because an open source capability or other software or hardware plugin devices that follow standard protocols will comply with the chip.
It’s unclear the semiconductor industry is ready to respond.
In the past, a centralized design automation and IP ecosystem made sense when there were a handful of large, concentrated markets with more homogeneous architectures such as cell phones, PCs, servers, networking components and hard drives. These applications create large, competitive markets that demand the latest in silicon technology and require commercial tools and IP to address performance, price, time to market and risk reduction.
The semiconductor industry knew how to respond.
New chips are upending the general industry order by enabling centralized cloud computing and decentralized, intelligent, connected devices working together to make technology more useful to consumers. They are propelling the industry from millions of early computers to hundreds of millions of PCs to billions of phones to tens of trillions of connected IoT devices. Anything that can be connected and anything that benefits from being smarter with AI, machine learning and software will be connected and will get even smarter. Some of these breakthroughs are a result of open source solutions.
As wonderful as this sounds, there is no “free lunch.” A closer look the open source phenomenon reveals some yet-to-be resolved deficiencies in the emerging chip design environment. Sure, a raft of complex hardware applications has been introduced and available using free, open source tools with flexible, no-cost or low-cost licensing able to fit into any development flow.
The end goal is not design. It is delivering a manufacturable product that provides some benefit or solution for the target market. That journey from design into manufacturing is risky, not free and comes with the risk of respin that results in huge costs.
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