In the March 2002 edition of Embedded Systems Programming magazine, Jim Turley predicted “The Death of Hardware Engineering.” For evidence, he pointed to the fact that hardware design, especially chip design, has become almost exclusively the domain of programmers using Verilog and VHDL. An emerging trend toward the use of more popular software development languages—such as C, C++, or Java—to perform “system design” (with the compiler automatically deciding what is best done in hardware and software) could indeed put an end to much of hardware design as we know it.
However, I’m not convinced the trend is as one-sided as Jim says. At the same time that hardware designers are moving toward writing more code, an increasing amount of software designers are moving toward more graphical forms of design. Automatic state machine generators and similar tools have started us down this path. A technology called Executable and Translatable UML offers capabilities that could ultimately make this a broader industry trend.
Of course, the increasing overlap between hardware and software does lead to some present confusion, and much uncertainty about the future. Hardware itself is becoming increasingly “soft.” Custom hardware on a board has already given way to custom hardware on a chip. And we’re now seeing a direct change toward integrated chips with a fixed processor surrounded by a flexible array of programmable logic. That’s the perfect target platform for a “system design language” to dominate.
Traditional hardware and software tool vendors are eyeing each other nervously across this narrowing digital divide. If you only design a system, instead of a system consisting of separate hardware and software designs, where will you go for your tools? To Wind River or Mentor Graphics? Though not traditionally direct competitors, companies like these are concerned they may increasingly vie with one another in the near future.
The named companies, both leaders in their respective domains, are beginning to position themselves accordingly. Wind River has been working with Xilinx, through a partnership. Apparently, their goal is to create a version of the Tornado development tool suite that includes hardware design and synthesis capabilities for Xilinx’s programmable logic surrounding an embedded processor-plus-VxWorks software environment. They’ve already delivered a set of tools for working with the current generation of Xilinx FPGAs.
Meanwhile, in another market, Mentor Graphics is laying a path for its current codesign/coverification customers to follow toward more involvement in software development. Hence, in my opinion, their recent acquisition of Accelerated Technology. The threat to Wind River is implicit in that acquisition. Though Mentor already had an RTOS product of its own (VRTX), they no longer had the software development perspective or inhouse experience they will need to compete in the not-so-distant future. The former Accelerated, led by its former president Neil Henderson, is now Mentor’s Embedded Systems Division.
Working separately, from their own markets, but both following this convergence trend, these companies (and others) will inevitably collide as the hardware and software do. That’s when things will get really interesting in the tools market. But I doubt it will truly be the end of hardware engineering.