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Ciranova tool finds way around Cadence

SKILL for analog design

Michael Santarini - November 13, 2006

While Cadence Design Systems' SKILL PCell description language remains closed to the rest of the
EDA industry, Ciranova, Cadence's competitor in the analog market, has come up with a seemingly
viable workaround that will allow any vendor to access PCell information via OpenAccess, an effort
Cadence was instrumental in founding a few years ago.

For well over a decade, the EDA industry has been promising to offer the analog design community
new, innovative tools that provide a great degree of automation—as has been done with digital-ASIC
design flows. But the industry has yet to fully deliver on that promise. Most analog engineers today
are using roughly the same tools they were using 15 years ago. Analog designers have been hesitant
to change their tools in the absence of technologies that give them a convincing reason to do so.

One reason EDA vendors have not provided new analog-tool technologies is that the industry lacks a
key open standard for custom- and analog-cell descriptions. For the last 15 years, the analog tools
market has been dominated by Cadence, which owns upwards of 90% of the market in analog and
full-custom design. Layout counts for a third of its revenue each quarter from this business. A key
reason Cadence has been able to hold onto that share over the years is the SKILL PCell description
format. SKILL is Cadence's proprietary cell description format that fab-process, library, and tool
developers use to generate the PCells that make up most if not all of the layouts in custom and
analog designs.

Cadence helped found and even donated the database technology to create the OpenAccess (OA)
common database—which allows multiple tool vendors and customer-developed tools to work from a
single industry-standard, open database. Nevertheless, the company has stopped short of opening up
SKILL to OA, thus preventing competitors from developing tools that could easily compete with
Cadence's analog and full-custom tools.

In the absence of a single, open, custom-cell description language that all vendors' tools can read,
each IDM (integrated device manufacturer) and foundry has to write a new set of cells for every
commercial design environment when they come out with a new process or change an existing one.
Certainly, because of Cadence's market position, they tend to write the SKILL version first and then
write Tcl, Python, Perl, or other versions as requested by customers, seemingly making it harder for
customers to use non-Cadence environments at the time a new process is released. IDMs and
foundries, of course, would prefer to write just one format for all tools and customers. But they
typically follow the money and cater to Cadence.

"PCells are typically written in proprietary [SKILL]," says Dave Millman, vice president of marketing
at Ciranova. "Because of that, tools from vendors [other than Cadence] aren't given full access to
those databases. They can open the database, but what they see is most frequently described as
Swiss cheese. They can see the custom layout and interconnect, but it is riddled with holes where
the PCells were supposed to be."

Now, Ciranova is introducing a tool that seemingly will help various EDA vendors develop tools with
a common open format, and a reasonable alternative to Cadence's SKILL.

Earlier this year, Ciranova quietly introduced a free tool called PyCell Studio. That tool, which runs
on OA, allows library developers, fabs, EDA companies, and designers to create new PyCells (an
alternative to PCells) using the Python language, instead of Cadence's proprietary SKILL. However,
PyCell Studio doesn't provide a mechanism for integrating legacy PCells into non-Cadence layout

At that point Cadence's Virtuoso wasn't compliant with OA, but in September Cadence released a
new version that is OA-compliant. With Virtuoso on OA, now Ciranova is introducing a new tool,
called PCell Xtreme, that essentially taps into SKILL by caching PCell information from Cadence
Virtuoso and saving that information in the OA database. PCell Xtreme picks up that cached
information from Virtuoso and allows any third-party, PyCell-compliant layout tools to read
PCells—essentially filling in the holes in the "Swiss cheese."

"A PCell is a program, and each time the database encounters a PCell, the application says, 'Let us
execute that PCell and create that layout, and I'm going to create it with the parameters shown here
and give it a width of 3 and a length of 4,'" Millman says. "But the layout of the PCell only exists in
memory, it never exists on the hard disk. And so when that database is closed, the memory is purged
and you have no more layout left. That's the way all PCells work, including PyCells. So if a given
application is not able to execute the PCells, then the PCell doesn't show up."

Ciranova's workaround? "When an application opens up a PCell and displays a layout on screen,
behind the scenes PCell Xtreme creates a cache of that PCell layout in the OA database," Millmans
says. "It is a universal database that anyone can read. So when another application wants to go and
read that database with PCells in it, it reads the cache, and it doesn't need to interpret the PCell,
and it doesn't need to handle the proprietary language."

While Ciranova doesn't flaunt this, that fact that PCell is freely available via OpenAccess means a
slew of other vendors can now offer an easier migration path for custom and analog designers to try
new design and layout tools and directly compete with Cadence's tools and market share. "It lowers
the barriers of entry for new companies in this area," Millman says. "OpenAccess is a big part of
that, and we believe we're a part of that too. OpenAccess is not complete but it certainly helps
complete the grand vision of OpenAccess so that in fact independent tool developers really are

The tool works with the latest and greatest version of Virtuoso, and the company has announced that
the RDE Framework from Silicon Navigator, AWR's Analog Office, and the the Laker Layout System
from Silicon Canvas can all now access PCells on OA with PCell Xtreme, Millman says.

If PCell Xtreme takes off, IDMs and foundries will only have to develop two versions of cell
descriptions in their PDKs (process data kits): one for Cadence/SKILL and a second for
Python/PyCell, The latter will be open to the rest of the industry through OA compliance. If the
approach becomes popular (and because Cadence is now on OA and can essentially access PyCells),
IDMs and foundries may ultimately produce custom- and analog-cell libraries in PyCell only.

Jim Solomon, chairman of Ciranova—and a founder and former CEO of Cadence responsible for
introducing many of Cadence's tool in this area—says that Python is a more modern, user-friendly
language than SKILL or Tcl. As such, he believes the industry would benefit from developing new
processes and tools with Python, instead of SKILL. "Tcl isn't deep enough and doesn't have enough
constructs," Solomon says. "SKILL is deep enough, but it's hard to use. Python is a more modern
language than SKILL and Tcl and it is an open language."

Even Cadence can benefit from using Python, as it too moves more tools to OA, Solomon notes. "One
of the big questions is, how do you migrate the old SKILL code to the new system [OA]," says
Solomon, who is also an officer and investor in AWR. "Some of that PCell stuff can be brought over
without having to worry about it, but some won't because the target system has changed. We are
helping people with that migration."

Solomon is undeniably a key figure, if not the key figure, that started the commercial EDA industry.
And the custom- and analog/mixed-signal tool area is one that has room for growth and provides
opportunities for innovation.

PCell Xtreme is $4000 per seat on a subscription license. PyCell Studio can be downloaded for free
from Ciranova.