At DAC this year, I had a chance to sit down with John Zuk, vice president of marketing and business development, and Massimo Sivilotti, chief scientist, at Tanner EDA.
I asked what has changed in the space of analog design over the past 25 years since I was last involved in it. That also happens to be the length of time that Tanner has been around. They told me that one of the biggest challenges and opportunities over that period has been the technologies available for implementation. In order to continue to make, say, a differential amplifier to the same specs today as we did at quarter micron is a huge challenge. Coupling this with the changes in operating voltages when there has been no such change in the physical world creates another set of challenges.
Advances also lead to additional problems. For example, we can now create devices that run at higher operating temperatures, which means that the devices start being used in these area -- such as on an engine block, which was not possible in the past. These all require innovations in process technology, innovations in circuit design, and innovations in applications. Tanner does not see itself as the company that wants to blaze the trail, but admits to being a fast follower company, a strategy that has worked well for it.
Most of Tanner's customers are working at 65nm and larger nodes today although they also keep up with challenges being presented by the latest nodes. Most of the fabs that concentrate on analog and mixed signal chips are also at the larger nodes. Fabs such as Tower Semiconductor Ltd., which trades as TowerJazz, don't even offer nodes smaller than around 90nm. As Sivilotti puts it: "You need to support the mainstream, but at the same time you have to have enough flexibility in the tools so that you do not constrain the people who want to go into unchartered waters."
There is a fine line between simplicity and flexibility, and Tanner believes this is one of the hallmarks of its products. Tanner also believes that by having done all of the tool development internally to the company, rather than buying bits and pieces through acquisitions, it has a consistency of design that enables it to have cleaner products that are easier to maintain.
Size is not always the most important attribute of a company. Longevity and company health are just as important. So while we may think of the industry as being dominated by the big three, there are other viable business models, and companies like Tanner have little desire to grow to challenge the big three.
This year Tanner is expanding the flow into the digital space by offering synthesis, place, and route and has already introduced a mixed-signal simulation product. This is not an attempt to take on pure digital, but to enable mixed-signal design. It is also doing it through partnerships with other midsized EDA companies. For example, Tanner and Aldec are happy working together to create solutions where both of the companies are equally committed to the solution.
This is different than trying to integrate into a big-three flow, where only one side is committed. However, it would not be possible without standards such as Verilog-AMS, which makes this type of integration possible. Open Access has been an important standard that has opened tools up and allowed for more integration.