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Archive for April, 2011

Impossible Astronaut and Supercomputers in the Desert

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

By John Blyler

The premier of a science fiction favorite and the start of a supercomputing competition all take place in a landscape rich in secret labs and alien sightings.

Have you ever noticed how coincidences and connections complement one another? It’s almost a “chicken and egg” relationship in terms of which comes first. Do seemingly unrelated, coincidental bits of information come first, sparking the imagination to make connections? Or do seemingly loosely coupled connections suggest a coincidental alignment at certain points in time?

Consider the following loosely coupled sequence of events. Last Saturday was the premier episode of the new science fiction season of Dr Who. The following Monday, the US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced a new supercomputing website which highlights a competition taking place in New Mexico.

The Dr Who story line dealt with strange meetings with a lake-bound astronaut and aliens cowering in tunnels (see Figure 1). This episode – “The Impossible Astronaut” – was unique because it was the first time in the series 48 year history that an episode was filmed in the US, specifically in Utah. Together, the landscapes in Utah and New Mexico help form the Great Basin Desert, which some call the Navajoan Wilderness.

Figure 1: "Impossible Astronaut" from Spring 2011 episode of BBC's Dr Who.

The Great Basin Desert shares the same mystic intonations as its neighbors; the Chihuahua, Mojave and Sonoran Deserts.

The sheer barrenness of these wastelands provides fertile ground for the imagination, from lost cities of gold and ancient petroglyphic carvings to UFO sightings. Interesting, these vast areas are also the hubs for some of the most hidden and high-tech facilities known to man, from Area-51 to secret military-university R&D operations stretching throughout all of these deserts.

Let’s return to the seemingly coincidental supercoming event in New Mexico, located at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). In stark contrast to the 130F temperatures of the outside desert, the inside of the LANL is maintained at in the mid-60s. Such cave-like inside temperatures is needed to cool the monolith high performance supercomputers which owe their existence to the world of semiconductor, chip and EDA innovation (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: The unusual slant to BlueGene/L's cabinets is a necessary design element to keep cooled air flowing properly around each cabinet's processors.

During this one week in April, select middle- and high- school students have the, “opportunity to work on the most powerful computers in the world…” Teams of students work throughout the year to complete science projects worthy to be run on the high-performance supercomputers.

Not surprisingly, past successful projects have come from computational problems in Astronomy, Geology, Physics, Ecology, Mathematics, Economics, Sociology, and Computer Science. The one restriction is that the problem being addressed deals with a measurable “real world” rather than imaginary challenge.

Yet, it was probably the imaginary challenge from a sci-fi show like Dr Who that originally sparked the scientific and engineering interest of these young students.

There are strange things done in the desert sun by the men (and women) that moil for gold. (My apologies to Robert Service).

Is it by random chance that the intersecting paths of coincidence and connections and of science fiction and hard science meet in the vast, seemingly barren deserts of America?

R&D Focuses on Low Power and Stacked Die

Friday, April 15th, 2011

By John Blyler

Atrenta collaborated with the French laboratory CEA/LETI in a research and development effort to advance power reduction and 3D stacked die EDA tools.

This is an important story that I meant to cover earlier.

Figure 1: Geneviève Fioraso (Member of Parliament, Deputy Mayor, City of Grenoble & President, SEM MINATEC Enterprises) addressing the audience at the DATE 2011 reception.

One evening last month at DATE, a reception marked the opening of Atrenta’s new research and development facility located at the Micro and Nanotechnologies Innovation Center (MINATEC) campus (see Figure 1). Atrenta had been involved with MINATEC for over 10 years. That relationship was strengthened with the hiring of several Ph.Ds on the campus. These additional professionals will be part of the Atrenta R&D team in Grenoble.

The DATE reception was sponsored by both Atrenta and CEA/LETI, the electronics and information technology laboratory of the French Atomic Energy Commission. The R&D effort will focus on EDA software tools in the emerging markets of advanced power reduction and 3D stacked die design. 

The speakers at the reception formed a veritable “Who’s Who” of the European electronics industry (see Figure 2).

I couldn’t attend DATE this year, held in Grenoble, France. I’m told that the MINATEC center is located in the northern part of the city with spectacular views of Alpine mountain peaks.

Peggy Aycinena, a fellow editor who did attend DATE, provided a complete and colorful description of the Atrenta and CEA/LETI event on her “Superheros of SoC” site: “Atrenta Inaugural in Grenoble

Figure 2: Speakers at the event: From left to right - Philippe Magarshack (Group Vice-President Technology R&D, STMicroelectronics) , Ajoy Bose (Chairman, President and CEO of Atrenta), Loïc Liétar (Executive Vice-President & Chief Strategy Officer, STMicroelectronics & Chairman, Minalogic), Geneviève Fioraso (Member of Parliament, Deputy Mayor, City of Grenoble & President, SEM MINATEC Enterprises) and Jean-René Lèquepeys (VP, Architecture, IC Design & Embedded Software Division, CEA/LETI).

Altium Pins Hopes on China

Friday, April 8th, 2011

By John Blyler

Rumors are flying as to why Altium is relocating its global headquarters from Sydney, Australia to Shanghai, China.  The relocations have already resulted in the loss of a large portion of the company’s development team in Sydney. Key R&D developers will be retained with some moving to Shanghai. The company hopes to combine the key developers with local talent from Shanghai to grow its development, sales and support activates within the Chinese market.

Some have speculated that Altium may be pressured into the move by China in order to commercialize local Chinese IP into its product.

Other observers point to economics as the real reason for the move to Shanghai.  A quick look at the company’s annual reports shows a 3 year decline of roughly 10% per year.

The official word from the company – via a press release – states that the, “primary motivation for the move is … that China represents the best location and opportunity for the execution of Altium’s plan for … (transforming customer) businesses from product-based models to a service-based approach where web-based ecosystems enable direct relationships between device end-users and device manufacturers.”

In a recent interview with Electronic News, Altium’s Head of Corporate Communications, Alan Smith, stated that “China is investing a trillion dollars in building an indigenous design sector so that ‘made in China’ will become ‘designed in China’. The centre of gravity of the electronics industry is moving to the country and we have made a decision to be part of that shift.”

A differing viewpoint on the focus of China’s electronics industry is offered by one of Altium’s competitors. Mentor Graphic’s PAD product line competes with Altium Designer for the lower end products that involve a single user or small group of designers building FPGA-based printed circuit board assembly.

John Isaac, Director of Systems Market Development at Mentor, suggested that today’s China is focusing on high-tech, high performance, large system products. “Some Chinese companies are competing directly with more advanced US companies, such as the way Hauwei (pronounced WAWAY) competes directly with US-based Cisco,” notes Isaac. “There seems to be a real shift in China from designing low end, more simple products to designing really high-end products.”

If this is true, then China may not hold as much potential for Altium as company executive’s hope.

Adventures at DesignCon – Twitter Logs and a Gold Stocking Woman

Happier times for Altium at DesignCon 2009, when they made a big push into the American market.

Mentor or EDA Industry – Who is to Blame?

Friday, April 1st, 2011

Mentor’s woes with Carl Icahn may stem from a misunderstanding of the complicated EDA market rather than the company’s financial condition.

The local paper – the Oregonian – has been dutifully reporting on Carl Icahn’s noisy financial challenges to Mentor Graphics: Casablanca Capital sides with Carl Icahn, castigates Mentor Graphics

An important element in this ongoing challenge is that, until yesterday, Icahn never really offered to buy Mentor at $17/share – a point that Wally Rhines recently confirmed. Rather, Icahn said that “if” he were to buy Mentor, then he would pay that amount. This minor clarification is important since no one has stepped forward to buy Mentor, which means that Icahn has no quick way of exiting the Mentor mess.

I would argue that, in terms of value to the investors, Mentor is no better or worse than Cadence or Synopsys. The challenge to investors is the EDA market, which is a very different beast from, say, the Internet or video rental businesses. (Both Yahoo and Blockbuster were past Icahn purchases.) This is the mistake that I believe Icahn is making, i.e., not understanding the market.

[This is part of an ongoing discussion on Facebook.