‘OpenEngines’ initiative drives EDA plug-and-play

By Richard Goering


A new standards proposal backed by Sun Microsystems, Intel and IBM could reshape the EDA industry by opening the door to multi-vendor “plug and play” tool environments. Called OpenEngines, the proposal envisions an environment in which EDA vendors, academic researchers, and silicon providers build interoperable software engines and components to a standard API.

Built on top of the OpenAccess data model, OpenEngines would allow end user companies to construct EDA environments comprised of software engines and components from commercial, academic and internal sources. The proposal originated in the user-driven Design Technology Council (DTC) of the Silicon Integration Initiative (Si2) and has yet to be presented to EDA vendors. The first public presentation will be at Si2’s OpenAccess Conference Nov. 5 in Santa Clara, Calif.

Rob Mains, senior distinguished engineer at Sun and chair of the DTC’s OpenEngines study group, noted that EDA applications are comprised of “engines” that provide services such as timing, noise and power analysis, and “components” that provide lower-level services to the engines such as interconnect delay calculation, sub-circuit pattern matching and shape manipulation. “What we are proposing is to standardize on API definitions for engines and components, along with semantic behavior, to allow for different suppliers to provide these engines and components as either open source or for sale,” Mains said.

The idea, Mains said, is to allow end user companies to build tool flows from components and engines as they choose, reducing the amount of R&D budget the company would have to invest. “We want to provide a mechanism, based on the OpenAccess run-time model, that would provide different types of engines and allow companies such as Sun or Intel or anyone to build what I would almost call a plug and play environment,” he said. “To accomplish that from a software perspective, we need standardized APIs along with standardized semantics.”

“The way the EDA industry works now, you buy applications that are closed and delivered as full tools,” said Jim Wilmore, program manager for industry initiatives at Intel. “We try to plug and play with those through standard formats like OpenAccess. This [OpenEngines] is really pushing the granularity of the same concept down into the applications, so software can be brought in and dynamically plugged into a single process running on the OpenAccess run-time model.”

“I would say that OpenEngines represents the ultimate vision that helped get us involved with OpenAccess in the first place,” said Joe Morrell, chief software architect of IBM’s EDA development. “That is, the OpenAccess data model comes first, around which you can then build modular component and engine offerings from any number of companies. The best of these can be selectively used to build the best-of-breed systems of tomorrow.”

According to Rahul Goyal, DTC chair and director of EDA business at Intel, there was a lot of interest when the OpenEngines concept was presented to the DTC in September. OpenEngines is now a study group within the DTC, he said, and is expected to provide a work proposal by the first quarter of 2008. DTC members include AMD, Ericsson, Freescale, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Infineon, Intel, LSI Logic, NXP, and Sun Microsystems.

“The DTC is comprised of ten user companies who recognize the need for CAD system applications built up from best of class components from multiple suppliers, rather than the coarser grained solutions we have today,” Goyal said. “OpenAccess is the key enabling technology to realize component architecture. Now the industry needs to extend up the food chain from standardized data to standardized interfaces for CAD functionality.”

“The OpenEngines proposal is an exciting and complementary new technology layer to further extend the existing OpenAccess value proposition,” said Steve Schulz, Si2 president and CEO. “The potential importance of this proposed technology is an expanded range of abstraction levels for tight integration of EDA software.” Schulz said that this kind of integration “could enable new innovative EDA business opportunities, particularly as nano-era silicon processes stress traditional notions of EDA tools and EDA tool flows.”

Access to technology

Sun’s Mains made the original OpenEngines proposal to the DTC. “What primarily drove my thinking was Sun’s need to have access to more of the internals of a given vendor’s place and route system,” he said. “Most of these are integrated monoliths that one cannot get lower-level access to at the C/C++ level. If we had this OpenEngines concept today, we could supplant different vendor services with our own, or alternatively, build custom tailored applications using vendor-supplied components at much lower cost to us and at a high quality level.”

OpenEngines “extends the ecosystem of OpenAccess” and takes it to the next step, Mains said. OpenAccess, he noted provides an open data model, and is analogous to the basic brick layer in Lego blocks. “We are proposing adding additional Lego blocks to that brick layer so we can build different things,” he said.


OpenEngines would provide standardized APIs for EDA components and engines from universities, EDA vendors, and silicon providers.

The concept is fairly simple. If a supplier builds an engine such as timing analysis, or a component such as sub-circuit pattern matching, to a standard API with agreed-upon semantics, it can be plugged into a best-of-breed design environment without requiring the user to write special interfaces. OpenEngines backers are assuming that the concept would start with the adaptation of existing EDA engines, and that over time providers would begin writing new applications to standardized APIs.

By using a modular, API-based approach with software components, OpenEngines is leveraging a software concept called component architecture. This approach, said Intel’s Wilmore, “isn’t rocket science and it isn’t a new concept. This is something that’s been going on. We’re trying to break it down into finer granularity.”

“When we designed our internal transistor tools here [at Sun], we went with a component-based architecture that allowed pieces to be reused,” Mains said.

During the 1990s, said Morrell, IBM started to decompose and modularize its internal tools in a fashion similar to the OpenEngines architecture. “While doing this, we made a conscious effort to wrap the engines with well-defined interfaces which would allow us to more easily replace one implementation with another, without having to redo the whole system,” he said. “Although our system was built around our proprietary data model, we are still well positioned to capitalize on OpenEngines, should it take off.”

Approaching the EDA vendors

The OpenEngines approach could have tremendous appeal for universities and in-house development groups, as they can focus on developing engines rather than complete, polished applications. But what about commercial EDA vendors? Thus far, Mains acknowledged, the dialog with them about OpenEngines has been limited to “very preliminary, informal discussions.”

“It really is a new business model for an EDA firm to open up a software stack at the API level, so that their components could be sold and supported to companies like us,” Mains said. “In our view, it is an additional business opportunity for them.”

“User companies are saying that we believe this is where CAD systems have to go,” Wilmore said. “To some extent we’re expecting the vendors to say, ‘you’ve proved the concept with the OpenEngines project, and we’ll figure out a market and a way to make money on it.'”

“Whether or not the EDA vendors will line up with this thinking is an open question,” said IBM’s Morrell. “The only thing I can say is that we were told the EDA vendors would not accept an industry standard data model either, yet now we have OpenAccess.”

One EDA vendor that appears to be thinking along similar lines is Silicon Navigator, a start-up partially funded by Intel Capital, that seeks to enable component software for EDA and chip design. That company provides its Rocket Design Environment (RDE) graphical framework for OpenAccess, along with products, services and engines in areas such as power analysis, schematics, transistor layout, floorplanning and timing. In May 2007 Silicon Navigator introduced OpenAccess engines for parameterized cell (p-cell) editing, RTL power analysis, and schematic editing.

To prove the OpenEngines concept, Mains said, the DTC study group will probably pick one application domain area for its initial efforts. But there’s no reason that the concept can’t apply broadly to the RTL to GDSII design flow over time, he said.

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