It seems that everywhere you turn these days you’re under a cloud. Whether it’s downloading tunes for your iPod, reading your Gmail, or backing up your precious photographic memories to that great big storage bucket in the sky – the vast array of networked devices we call ‘The Cloud’ is a growing presence in our lives.
From an end-user perspective, the changes often appear subtle – books magically appear on your Kindle, and you no longer need a massive portable hard drive on which to back up your system. But this simplicity belies the incredible sophistication of the back-end systems that make it all happen. And that’s where engineers, software developers, and designers come in. They are the ones who are tasked with building not only ever-more sophisticated devices, but increasingly a complete online ecosystem to which these devices connect and derive much of their functionality and value.
Seeding the cloud
Things were much simpler in the ‘pre-Cloud’ design universe. Electronics designers designed electronic devices. These devices typically had a fixed purpose and their functionality was contained within the circuitry and software inside the device. Of course connection points existed to update firmware or allow some limited PC connectivity, but – in the main – devices were standalone entities.
In less than half a decade, Internet connectivity has evolved from something that was only relevant in the world of personal computers to now being included in virtually every product we buy or interact with. Today, Internet connectivity can be found in cars, toys, machines, and even public infrastructure.
This ‘explosion’ of connectivity has meant that device designers have had to rethink what Internet connectivity means in the context of their products. The standards, interfaces, and design models that evolved within a PC environment have had to be rethought and completely remodeled to fit the various form factors and usage patterns emerging from this new ‘Internet of devices.’
Indeed, the emergence of the Cloud as part of our everyday lives is forcing designers to let go of their preconceived ideas of what a device is and where its value really lies, and to scramble to find ways of bringing new, and often unfamiliar, technologies and processes into their design worlds.
A changing industry
From an industry perspective, there are signs that technology component suppliers are forming relationships with device manufacturers, and web-based content and service providers are devising strategies and building ecosystems to spread their systems across multiple product categories. And both are benefiting from the market expansion this provides. At the same time telecommunications companies are rushing to come up with business models that capitalize on this massive growth in device connectivity, and to provide access to connectivity both to end users and the companies providing the ecosystems that service the devices.
The bottom line here is that the world is becoming increasingly connected, and that this growth in connectivity is accelerating. This growth is fuelling a tremendous rush to design and develop a new generation of devices for which the Internet is simply an extension of the device’s internal functionality. Hand in hand with this is the enormous task of creating the Internet ecosystems that support these devices.
This ubiquitous Internet connectivity has serious ramifications for electronics designers, and indeed for the tools they require to remain relevant in an industry that is increasingly seeing the lines blurred between the functionality a device provides and the functionality provided by that device’s connection to an online ecosystem.
It is becoming harder to separate electronics design from what has traditionally been the web applications design realm. As a result, many electronics design companies have been left struggling with technologies and issues that were not even on their collective radars just a few short years ago.
Taking EDA into the cloud
Electronics design tool vendors are often criticized for lagging the technology that they’re ostensibly charged with enabling. The move to device ecosystems is proving many of these critics right.
It’s not that the EDA companies are ignoring the Cloud. Many of the chip tool vendors are actively looking to provide some design functions, such as complex verification, as Cloud-based services. So indeed, EDA companies are looking at how they can use the Cloud as a way to deliver their tools in more cost-effective and scalable way.
While this is, on the surface, a reasonable course of action, it really ignores the bigger issue for EDA vendors when it comes to Cloud computing. It’s not really about tool vendors using the Cloud to simply provide the tools and services they currently offer in a better or more efficient way. The real game-changer comes in the broader product development arena, and it will happen when the tool vendors ask themselves one simple question – how can they use the Cloud to help their customers design for the Cloud, and not just design the devices that connect to it.
In other words, electronics designers today need tools that allow them to harness their device design experience and bring it to the design of device ecosystems. What’s needed is a unification of device and web applications development within a single tool framework.
From a market perspective, this is a rapidly changing game driven by the need to connect people (both end-user and developer) to their electronic devices in innovative and tremendously useful ways. The Cloud offers the infrastructure to do this, but developers still lack coherent tools to bring together web-based applications design and the design of the connected electronics devices.
A simple example of the power of the technology is the way Amazon's Kindle book reader system synchronizes itself across multiple platforms. Regardless of which device you use – Kindle for the PC, Kindle for the iPad, the Kindle device itself – when you open any device you'll be presented with the last page you were reading, regardless of which device you were last reading it on. Amazon uses a person's Kindle account in the Cloud to transparently synchronize this information across all devices in the ecosystem.
Now, Amazon is a large company with huge resources available, so it has the ability to push through the development of such a system with the tools currently available. But imagine if Cloud connectivity and a range of Cloud service building blocks and templates were standard parts of an electronic product developer's design tool. And imagine if the design environment on the designer's desktop was part of a larger Cloud-based ecosystem that provided automatic hosting and deployment services (amongst other things) that allowed designers to connect the devices they design directly to the Cloud and utilize the services they create.
With such a system, even developers with limited resources could bring the potential of Cloud-based services and functions directly and easily to their products and the people using them.
Soaring above the Cloud
In one aspect, the future of devices and the Cloud is clear. Companies that take advantage of ubiquitous connectivity and offer their products with access to value-added content, services, and ecosystems will get the greater returns on their investments. This is because the physical product is only part of the revenue opportunity for these device manufacturers.
Electronic product development tool company Altium has
recently released its AltiumLive ecosystem. Amongst a range
of services, AltiumLive subscribers can deploy and access-
managed, version-controlled Vaults for component and design
data that can be accessed directly from within the Altium
Designer design system anywhere in the world.
Thus, it’s not a far stretch to conclude that EDA companies that develop tools and systems that enable their customers to more easily create and deploy devices and ecosystems together as a coherent design flow will themselves become a necessary part of the ecosystems they support.
The traditional thinking about EDA and the Cloud, such as simply providing a platform to offer design software on demand or hosted web services for specific functionality, will only be a brief stopover on the way to the final destination. The real potential of the Cloud for EDA vendors is in exploiting the potential the Cloud has for connecting customers to their devices, for connecting designers to their devices, and for connecting devices to each other and to a broader ecosystem.
In short, it's all about connecting people and devices. When the EDA tool vendors recognize this and abandon their old ways of thinking about device development as something separate from web development, then EDA will have found its real place in the Cloud.
About the author
Rob Irwin currently holds the position of Product Manager at Altium Limited. Rob has a Bachelor of Engineering (Electrical) from the University of Sydney, Australia.
Rob has over 20 years’ experience in the electronic design industry, including several years as editor of Australian Electronics Engineering.